Lying to Ourselves over PFI – Private Finance Initiative

Ashmole-Academy-817x389

PFI was Government outsourcing at its worst as the Independent has uncovered. There is a saying “There are no free lunches” but politicians like to pretend that there are.

PFI was a scheme to bring forward capital spending for hospitals, schools, care homes and others areas of under-funded public utilities without showing it in spending profiles – without being honest and transparent with the public about what it was doing.

Ally this to the cozy relationship between certain politicians and those in the building and construction industry and the inability of civil servants to really understand enough about the risks to dissuade politicians and the recipe was in place.

What we have is a burden on our public sector that will not impact the politicians that made the decisions but will have grave (in some cases literally) consequences for those who will be unable to be provided with the care they need as costs in our public sector rise over the next few decades as the bills are paid.

Back in 1998, when I was a Trustee / Governor at a local school in North London, I identified that the school needed to be rebuilt. It was crumbling, had asbestos, its electrical wiring was unsafe, roofs were collapsing and let in vast amounts of rain water and the school had to make use of temporary facilities that were installed 30 years before. There was a real danger that the school would be closed at some time in the future unless radical steps were taken and the only answer was to rebuild.

I made a presentation to the Board of Governors in 1998 where I proposed that, while PFI was an option being actively touted by Government as a panacea, we should not touch it. In Powerpoint slides, printed and shown on an overhead projector (we could not afford the computer equipment) I tried to persuade reluctant but well-meaning local people to reject the obvious answer because of “long-term high charge over 30 years” and loss of control over our own assets. The slide shown 17 years ago is below:

1998

The school, now Ashmole Academy in Barnet was built without PFI – although it took until 2004 to see it through. Eleven years’ later, the school (where I was Chair for 12 years from 2002 until 2014) remains in excellent condition and is an excellent school – one of the best in England.

When this Government began its enquiry into school buildings a few years’ ago, it commissioned Sebastian James and his team that produced the James Report.

This report, to which a few of us from the board at Ashmole made representations and met with members of the Report team prior to publication, did not condemn PFI but simply said:

Private Finance Initiative

A procurement route established in 1995, and more widely adopted since 1997. It is an important route for much Government spending on assets as it transfers significant risks to the private sector. PFI requires private sector consortia to raise private finance to fund a project, which must involve investment in assets, and the long-term delivery of services to the public sector.

As a result, PFI was allowed to continue on the basis that it meant to provide a “transfer of risks to the private sector”. For this transfer (which is really nonsense as the transfer was merely to get public sector spending off the books and into the books of the companies), the construction and service companies were handsomely compensated.

Not only that, but local and national public sectors were completely overwhelmed by the prospect of architectural excellence rather than practical building and this resulted in grandiose schemes that impress architects and win awards but ended up being hard to maintain, costly to build and a long-term drain on finances.

The lessor, now the School or the local authority is then stuck with a long-term agreement which it has to pay – at costs which are far greater than those which a Government could have loaned the money at – just to get costs off the books so no-one would notice that the financial burden was excessive while the new facilities were being built.

As to the risk being transferred, at Ashmole, we decided to take on such risk and then make sure that we had good contractors, good architects, good project management overseen by knowledgeable Board directors / trustees and good contracts in place. The risk was normal – it was on the suppliers not the school as we were the customers. The risk issue is nonsense.

The James Report is now forgotten but should have been a reminder that PFI was a major accident waiting to happen.

The Independent’s Report highlights not just the crippling costs of PFI but also the problems that are met when government (local and national) become swept away by those in the private sector who promise a free lunch and by their own lack of transparency and inability to understand business.

We entrust Government with much of our future but, while we condemn those that allowed PFI to take place in such a shambolic way, we should bear in mind that we may be expecting far too much in an area of greatest risk – the place where public and private sector meet. Knowledge and capability on either side are varied but neither really “gets” the other. This is why banking crises will always appear from time to time and why outsourcing of public sector often delivers much less than “expected”.

The place where public and private sector meet is a dangerous one and is less well understood than the specific sectors themselves. However, one way that such disasters as PFI could be reduced is through transparency – it was the desire to keep costs “off the books” that took us into PFI when extra expenditure on the public sector financed by low-costs Treasuries would have been a far better investment.

However, the pressure to falsely account was made by the pressure put on politicians by keeping government spending down even in the face of greatest need. It is why, even today, the NHS funding row is all about showing how the £8bn will be afforded in years to come when we all really know that we have very little idea what the UK’s finances will look like in three to five years. Good management of finances does not mean we can possibly be that accurate (no company really believes it knows how it will be doing beyond twelve months and beyond that, forecasts are but guides based on spreadsheets – the same is true of economies but with thousands more indeterminate variables).

So, PFI and similar comes from our desire to lie to ourselves and for politicians to lie to a public that is implicit in the lie.

We need to educate ourselves to reality by being more transparent.

Swing Riots to Zero Hours

 

150402_Swing Riots

The early 19th Century contains a forgotten history lesson in trying to understand the changes in the relationship between the workforce and business.

Farming in the early 19th Century (by far the main employer) was mainly open field farming where wealthy landowners leased out their farms to tenant farmers. These tenant farmers then brought in labour to work the farms. Farm labourers were selected at annual labour fairs in the villages and small towns close to the farms. When selected, the labourer would be employed by the farmer for a year or so and live on the farm – usually sharing in the work and eating with the farmer and his family.

This seemingly idyllic relationship can be likened to working relationships in the 1960’s and 1970’s when employment was meant to be “for life”. It was the breakdown in that relationship and the tensions that ensued that led to British trades-unions forcing a mass of industrial disputes in the 1970’s that Margaret Thatcher’s government sought to end.

In the 1820’s and 1830’s, the annual fairs gave way to monthly contracts and then often to weekly and daily as the world of agriculture was devastated after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, as weather conditions worsened for farming and as poor conditions led to a rise in disease that devastated cattle and sheep in many areas. The need to keep costs lower and lower led to wage reductions on a regular basis and the invention of the threshing machine was seen as a needed investment by farmowners that could afford the investment.

For the farm workers, by 1830, life had become intolerable and the “Swing” riots ensued. Rowland E Prothero (Baron Ernle), writing in his “English Farming” (1888):

“While the Luddites broke up machinery, gangs of rural labourers destroyed threshing machines, or avenged the fancied conspiracy of farmers by burning farm-houses, stacks, and ricks, or wrecking the shops of butchers and bakers. In the riots of 1830-31, when “Swing” and his proselytes were at work, agrarian fires blazed from Dorsetshire to Lincolnshire.”

Fast-forward to 2015 and we are now confronted by the realization that business (our 21st Century equivalent of 19th Century farming in terms of employment) is now employing zero hours contracts with increasing regularity. This 19th Century response to a 21st Century problem goes hand-in-hand with the UK’s inability to increase its productivity to anywhere near the levels of Germany and France (let alone the USA).

Luddism (and its followers, the Luddites) was a cry against the fear of mechanization in mills and early factories (and the farms) while the “Swing” riots, although exacerbated by the introduction of threshing machines, was more than this. It was a reaction against a change in relationships that had been developed over many years. This breakdown of the relationship between the farm labourer and the farmer (and the poverty into which farm labourers were thrown) led to riots and the extraordinary backlash of Government (labourers were imprisoned, many were banished to the colonies and many were executed).

Zero Hours Working and Independence

This time around, zero hours contracting is also a symptom of a breakdown in relationships. It is common in low-skill environments and very common in many areas where Government (local and national) has decided to outsource. Many of these jobs occur where the individual on a zero-hours contract is working in social care. This is an example of short-term cost requirements that can easily lead to long-term quality disappearance – as the ability of the carer is their responsibility as far as the contractor is concerned.

For some time, the relationships between employer and worker in manufacturing and services has been changing – and reflects the way of agriculture in the early 19th Century. Workers are now more like sub-contractors as Tom Peters  (a leader in management thinking) envisaged back in 1994 when he wrote an article in The Independent – “Travel the Independent Road”:

“I contend that…everyone, bellhop, boss, scientist, had best achieve the mindset of the independent contractor.”

With the growth in self-employment in the UK since the financial crash of 2007/8 (where 15% of all workers are now self-employed and one-third of employment since 2010 has been in this area according to the Bank of England), we do appear to be changing the relationship between bosses and workers. In the Bank of England’s Q1 2015 Report, it asserts that “much of the recent increase in self-employment reflects longer-term trends.”

The steady ageing of the population and the increased distance between business managers (the most similar to tenant farmers in the 1830’s) and the average worker (at least in terms of salary) suggests that the 20th Century may well have been just a phase in the development of capitalism. It may well be that the natural default position is more ambiguous – offering those with skills the ability to sell into a marketplace with a range of options rather than the existing with one employer that pays for those skills for the whole of a working life.

In highly skilled jobs within the film industry, for example, it has been common for some time for companies to be formed just to make one film. Skills are brought to bear on that film (whether by actors, directors, script writers, cameramen/women and all the rest) who then disperse at the end of the production. They leave with payment for their role and investment of time and skill and, hopefully, with their reputations enhanced – reputations that will help them towards the next collaboration.

In most work, the old mentality of learning on a job and working for the same company for life persists. Zero hours contracts splits the worker from the employer so that they cannot gain training and benefits from that skill accumulation.

The Labour Party, in the run-up to the May 7th General Election, calls for the curtailment of such contracts. However, as argued in many areas, there are many types of such contracts (not all bad) – Independent 3rd April 2015 – and the move to such contracts may well be a harbinger of changes in the working structure. If the latter, while abuses at work need to be stopped, then we still need to have a change our thinking about how we assist those who are independent contractors to develop skills and capabilities (and also help them to negotiate good independent contracts) and to help them to access the work where it is available.

This calls for government to understand and work with the organisations that represent the self-employed – who have been for so long the virtual bystanders in a game carried out by business and representatives of permanent employees (trades unions and staff associations).

There may well be no repeat of the Swing Riots in the 21st Century but as inequality of income and wealth become progressively worse, it is critical that we ensure that inequality of opportunity for all those who want to work but may decide (or have it decided for them) to work as independents is minimized. This can be done by enabling training in skills and enhancing the networks of opportunity for them.

Independent working can be entirely fulfilling but the old (Ed Miliband?) mindset needs to change to the way the world is working in the 21st Century and to maximize the ability of the self-employed / Independent worker to achieve success in this changing (and uncertain world).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Schools – Liberty or Libertarian?

Today (20th October), Nick Clegg stood aside from Michael Gove (and David Laws) in seeking to ensure that teachers in Free Schools are properly trained (to QTS standards), that there is an educational centre based on the national curriculum and that all students should have access to good meals at school.

The basic trend of this government is to free up schools from the central doctrines of Local authority rules and requirements whilst ensuring that they remain financed by the centre. This is one aspect of Michael Gove’s belief in free “choice” – which is commendable in principle but hits at least three snags: people in communities do not want to have a variety of bad choices; there are too many issues at stake for lay-people (no matter how capable and well-meaning) to adequately assess all the issues before making a choice;   choice requires a real sense of competition and access to that competitive environment and a real market.

There is in England a Brave New World of Education where the division is between the alpha model of private education, the beta model of good state schools and the epsilon model of all the rest. The advent of Free Schools is meant to blow away the model so that where problems exist in a location, excellence is developed through the ability of the market and hard-working people – untrammeled by centralist doctrine. Supporters of this market-notion state that the disasters of the Bradford Free School – Al-Madinah – show that the market works – that bad schools will be outed and forced to improve or close.

Choice in Education

The ability to choose rests upon an assumption that those with a choice will receive their preferred choice.  In a parliamentary report from 2010, it was estimated that 85% of those in the secondary school state system received their first choice, but this obscured the much lower rate in cities.

Of course, choice is only as good as what is offered and this is critical. Real choice would enable those choosing to be able to select the right school that will enable the student to gain real value and advantage in his / her education. That means the provision of a school of a good standard. Choice in many areas obscures the fact that those making the choice have to select the “best on offer” – all may be well below the required standard that they would “choose” if they had the chance.

This is why there are efforts to raise standards across the board in the hope that all will, eventually, have a choice that contains better schools – those of a sufficiently high standard to satisfy all the requirements.

In this feverish search for choice and raised standards (and we all welcome a considered drive to improve), choice has been thrust forward as a key reason behind Free Schools.

Freedom from Local Authorities

With the advent of Academies, schools (especially secondary state schools) are progressively moving out of the local authority sphere of influence. Cut-backs in the latter mean that their central education capabilities have been curtailed and the drive for a more centralized control by the Ministry of Education continues – while purporting to be a drive for more local control by each school.

For many schools, this freedom is positive. Local authorities are hugely variable in capability, ingenuity and innovation – as well as funding. This meant that, in many areas, schools were held back and can now progress untrammeled by local authority (often “political”) involvement.

However, this freedom also means that Academies, while having to adhere to national Admission rules, do not have to co-ordinate admissions with the local authority. The impact of this is yet to be determined.

Progressive Freedom

Academies have substantial powers over teacher pay and curriculum in many areas but Free Schools (based mainly on local demand requirements in a range of areas – including Faith) are not beholden to the national curriculum nor the requirement to select teachers based on existing training norms. In addition, the debate about local “need” may also strain credulity. Faith schools, for example, are the first in line on this basis but the desire of those to provide faith schools may not be in line with those locally who may oppose this. Unlike planning permission, the process is more about the desire of those in favour than reaching a local conclusion based on what makes sense for the local community as a whole. The school as a local community hub (so important with the demise of the Church) is now forgotten in the search for market results.

Nick Clegg’s intervention may not go far enough and seems to typify those who find fault with the Gove vision. That vision is about freedom and choice but is not sufficiently strong in its understanding of what is needed in the local community. Local authorities purported in the past to have this responsibility but failed in many cases to carry out that remit. So, just like Margaret Thatcher’s response in London (to abolish the GLC), where possible local remits are abolished and individual schools set up – with progressively more independence.

This disruption, between local authority or central government, between local (often bad) control and school independence, means that local areas may lose the chance to have a substantial uplift in education capability because individual schools are now encouraged to go it alone. Without some understanding of overall local need, the progressive freedoms of the market (in a confused market economy like education) will throw up abnormal results – often by chance. Economics is not strong on education.

The ability of individual schools (often under pressure from Boards) may not be high. The ability of many Free Schools to chose teachers not based on rigorous teacher training standards is also dubious.

Choice of what?

Michael Gove hopefully has learned a lot in the last ten years. When he was in opposition, I personally asked him for his views on whether there was scope for schools to benefit from better procurement and management of IT through some association or collaboration of state schools. Over 3,000 secondary schools typically pursued their own aims and ambitions in this area. Recruitment is tough in this sector as salaries are not competitive for strong IT staff. Imagine a company with 3,000 subsidiaries all being allowed to go their own way!

Gove’s written response to me was interesting. His view was that individual schools should stand on their own feet and that, if they had poor IT, parents would exercise choice and not send their children to such schools.

This outlined to me Gove’s prioritization and focus on choice. It puts too much weight on parent’s assumed knowledge of even backroom systems like IT – which almost no parents would investigate. It suggests that perfect information is not just available but understandable and assessable. This seemed to be a nonsensical response at the time but seems to underlie much of Conservative thinking about so-called “choice”. We should be ensuring that all schools have great IT – a fundamental requirement in the modern, high-tech working society – not allowing any to fall by the wayside. This should not be about allowing schools to fail – but, ensuring they all succeed: not sink or swim, but ensure they can swim.

Parental choice has to be reasoned choice that makes sense to parents. Each area may have different needs. In some, there may be great schools but a requirement to spend £500,000 on a house to get into one; in other areas, there may be one excellent school that attracts the best students and the rest are allowed to wallow in mediocrity at best; in other areas, grammar schools may dominate; in other areas, reduced capital investment may not attract good staff – the list goes on and no two areas are the same.

Choice is what is highlighted each time a Free School comes before local people. It is, in itself, meaningless because no-one really understands it. Choice of what is less a real choice than a funding decision as a Free School may be the only way to acquire the funds locally to do something of real value.

So, Nick Clegg is on the right lines in trying to firm up key elements of Free Schools but there is more to do. Liberals (or anyone that shares a desire to benefit local communities) need to bring in some form of assessment that enables local people to gauge their options. In addition to the assessment of individual schools and our focus on league tables, parents have to acquire information on the local area’s overall education capabilities (not the Borough itself) into which Free Schools, Academies, Private education and other schools exist.

This is not a call for local authorities to get back its old powers, but for educational assessment that enables citizens to acquire immediate information on their local areas (their catchment area) and for decision-makers (often central government) to actively show that they have not just taken these assessments into account but are actively pursuing change in areas of real priority.

This way, choice allied to progressive and continuous overall improvement can be parsed into the local framework and maybe enable real decisions to take place: localism that means something rather than a free-for-all.

They Yearn to Learn

The pen is mightier than the sword”, Bulwer-Lytton’s famous line from his 1839 play about Cardinal Richelieu, has never been spoken with more force and meaning than by a young girl on her 16th birthday at the United Nations.

Malala Yousafzai talked with a certainty that arose from a recovery from a coma caused by Taliban gunshots that were meant to kill her in Pakistan just last year. She spoke with a determination that transfixed all those that have seen her and, maybe, read her words.

174 years after the first performance of Bulwer-Lytton’s play, the pen has been overtaken by computers and mobile phones and, with the enormous advances that have been made in technology; it is now technically easier than ever to provide education wherever it is needed. In this way, learning can be used to help fight the ignorance that shot to kill a young girl who had dared to want to be educated.

Learning at a Distance

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) or distance learning are becoming highly competitive to standard university teaching in the United States. In Creative Destructionism in World Education I discussed the phenomenon that threatens traditional courses at universities and which are being sold off at much lower prices to compete. Creative destructionism in education can exist where the laws of supply and demand are allowed to be employed and where excellent learning materials and worthy accreditation regimes exist and where the technology is affordable. In the USA, all of this exists.

Equality of Learning

Yet, 57 million young people in the world go without education and millions more young adults who already have missed out on education (and are being forgotten completely as we focus on children) seem to have nowhere to go to catch up.

Worse, in a number of countries, not only is technology a crime against religion but large sectors of the population (mainly women and girls) are made to fear education by their male counterparts – and risk being killed if they dare to want to be educated.

In October, 2012, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (writer and author and a Senior Fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations in the USA) wrote on the positive response in Pakistan to Malala coming out of her coma just nine months ago: “I have spent years interviewing women who braved real personal danger to set up living room classrooms and girls who braved their familys’ security just to sit there. And a lot of times I’m asked, ‘Is this a Western import or a foreign import?’ The truth is, even when the world forgets these girls, they fight themselves for the right to go to school. And I think what Malala’s story has done is made it impossible to look away and impossible to forget about these girls’ struggle.”

But there has been progress, Lemmon says, at least in one nation in that part of the world.

“You know, in Afghanistan particularly, you really see a lot. In 2001, less than one per cent of the country’s girls were in school, and now close to 3 million are. And every day, they go out and battle all kinds of threats just to sit and learn. Their battle is really everyone’s fight because, if you look at the world, 40 million of the 70 million children who aren’t in school are in countries that are struggling against war, and there is no better correlation to predicting violence than education levels.”

This incredible struggle to learn enfranchises women and girls in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan like nothing else. But, it can be even better. Learning can be there for everyone – as it is through improved access to education and the motivation to access it that nations can develop and thrive. That is vital for the male sections of society just as much as it is for the female. That is true for developed nations just as much as it is for developing.

Motivated to Learn

In the UK, governments of all hues have played games with the education system for decades – playing games with the curriculum and making life for teachers difficult and undermining the profession.

Yet, our problems are tiny when considered against those faced in developing countries where so little money is spent on education (like in Africa or even in rapidly developing countries like large sections of India – where education is prized). At least in many of those countries, learning is understood as the foundation stone of progress. There, technology can now being provided to reach all areas – broadband that carries the information, notepads that are cheaper every year, education materials that can be carried electronically on all subjects with potential for the best teaching from the best teachers.

Aid to Learning

Future Brilliance is one organization that is putting together all these pieces of the jigsaw. I am a Director of Future Brilliance in the UK, but there are now operations in the USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The challenge is to provide the technology and associated learning materials into the latter two countries – beginning with the Digital Learning Initiative (DLI) that is aimed at providing Internet knowledge to enable businesses to be started up taking full advantage of the technology. With computer tablets at $100, secure Internet (through satellite where no other form exists and as back-up to terrorists or corruption) and progressively greater learning materials, the opportunity must now be seized by the developed world to assist in this global marketplace.

This initiative was launched at the House of Lords in London on Monday, 8th July to an audience of 150 – including Ministers and Embassy officials from Afghanistan together with UK Ministers, journalists, technology companies and educationalists plus representatives from the US Government.

Future Brilliance already has a contract to provide Afghans with training in gem design  – which is being provided in Jaipur, India. The new project (for which funding is currently being sought) will provide teaching to wherever it is needed – with the added capability of highly secure systems to combat all forms of attack.

Searchers for Education

The aims are not technological but educational and transformational. It is also not a top-down Aid programme. The key aim is to assist Afghans and those from Pakistan to develop from the ground up utilizing the capabilities provided by the technology and learning materials. As troops leave in 2014, Afghanistan and Pakistan need a large core of educated citizens to provide the cement in the middle – not more politicians but increasingly capable business people, health workers and those involved in all forms of a civil society.

The Digital Literacy Initiative is highly innovative – but not just in the manner of the service offered. It is a bottom-up programme that enables citizens to make the most of their lives. It is a programme where developed countries do not centrally compel from the top. Learning cannot be compelled by rote (as Mr. Gove in the UK would like to do) but is enabled. Strong teachers, excellent materials, security of surroundings (the DLI is aimed to provide teaching in the home or wherever safety best exists) and secure systems are provided.

With the UK spending 0.7% of its GDP on international aid, outside of emergency funding of disaster recovery and health, the best way for this government and governments like it is to invest in developing nations by enabling them to foster their own salvation. This is the bottom up approach.

In the internet-ready world, the military aim has been to intervene to combat world-wide terrorism. Now that the soldiers and air power are leaving Afghanistan, it is timely to provide help and assistance where it is most needed: to prove that the pen is mightier than the sword – brought up to date by DLI and similar initiatives. More like William Easterly’s “searchers” from his “White Man’s Burden” than the traditional “planners”.

“Initiatives like this can play a part in sustaining the counter-insurgency campaign into the future, and will represent an enduring and meaningful extension of the British and ISAF coalition’s commitment to facilitate enduring stability, economic stimulation and distribution of knowledge and education to the Afghan people.”
– General Sir David Richards GCB CBE DSO ADC Gen (Chief of the Defence Staff, UK).

 

Creative Destructionism in World Education

Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction” – the dramatic changes that occur when a new economic or business model completely destroys its predecessor.

From railways and motor cars in transport to the telegraph and the Internet in communications, each generation witnesses such creative destruction.

Now, a combination of factors is coming together, which may well alter the education system – at all levels and worldwide. These changes could not just impact the status quo education establishment but cause changes across the world – impacting many for who such education was previously in the preserve of the wealthy.

The whirlwind of Change – remote learning

 

In February 2011, the Socionomics Institute published a report, which contended that the economic cycle was reaching a position where high levels of spending on higher education were likely to tail off as society came around to overt criticism as a result of the economic climate.

They said at the time: “Traditional educational institutions may eventually lose control of the manufacture and distribution of education much as the music and publishing industries lost their grip on music and text. Bear markets topple dominant players and open the field to nimbler entrepreneurs, who will develop alternatives to institutional education.”

The trend was focused on the opportunity being taken by online courses, which were receiving accreditations and providing formal teaching anywhere that broadband is receivable and anywhere that a computer capability exists.

Scientific American published an article in March, 2013 highlighting the move to MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses.

In the UK, Thomas Telford School has pioneered online learning and sells these through its company TTS Online.

In the USA, The Khan Academy – www.khanacademy.com – has a mission, for example, which states:

 A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

All of the site’s resources are available to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.

The Khan Academy (a 501 (c) (3) charity in the USA) is supported by a number of well-known Foundations including Bill and Melinda Gates and Google and claims over 3,000 videos produced to date. The offering is to all schools on a very wide range of subjects.

The key, of course, is the ability to develop education modules that can be used anywhere.

Others, like Sugata Mitra (winner of the 2013 TED Prize), have for some years promoted such remote learning He is well-known for the “Hole in the Wall” – remote learning placed in kiosks in Delhi that provided extraordinary learning opportunities for those without educational opportunities. It provided great evidence of the value of remote learning and the ability of the young to self-educate – given good material and the opportunity (low-cost or free).

Even more recently, wider usability has been provided by Datawind – a British based company but operating out of India – makers of the Aakash Tablet for the Indian Government at around $45 each. They state:

 “Our motto is ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’. We are committed to bringing the next billion people into the internet age by offering internet access devices with very affordable, anywhere, anytime internet connectivity.” (www.datawind.com).

Founded by Suneet Singh Tuli, products are now in service and this is beginning to create the hardware to complement the software that is now available.

The final piece is the communication system, which the internet (ever-growing) is supplying in quantities quite capable of providing access to almost all – worldwide. Where this is patchy (or vulnerable through security issues) satellite communications is feasible (such as offered by Inmarsat.

Global Education

The opportunity that has been witnessed on a small scale through YouTube and other, on-line video technology in the west is now opening up in two, main ways.

First, remote learning is beginning to be seen as an alternative to the high cost of a tertiary education. As the Socionomics Institute article puts forward – “Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun offers remote students the same lectures, assignments and exams that on-campus students pay $50,000 a year for.”

 This means that the standard model for education can change – remote education can offer all potential students at any time progressively higher standards of education wherever they are. Distance learning is now becoming a real alternative – although it is bound to take years to establish and years to wean us off the “establishment” consensus. Of course, education is more than just study  – it includes many of life’s social requirements, too. However, while we don’t get to go to Eton or Oxbridge – we can all aspire to inspirational teaching wherever it comes from.

More than this, though, remote learning opportunities are now opening up the potential for the world outside the land of Yale and Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. This is the world where education is prized such as in India or China, but not obtainable to the mass of people there. It is also the world where education is not prized – such as in Afghanistan where girls are omitted from the education system.

Future Brilliance, a non-profit and where I am a Director, is opening up this area through its work (www.futurebrilliance.net) in Afghanistan and through the potential that distance learning provides is now working on a number of solutions that could drive education into areas that have not benefited in the past from technological change and the reach that educationalists and the internet now enable.

This is an example of creative destruction where education norms could be shattered worldwide but where education (the basis for any society) is now becoming attainable everywhere. Although massive hurdles need to be overcome in terms of technology and, in many areas, social norms and security, the potential for the world to entertain new educational horizons is enormous.

Embracing the Online

The opportunity is also a challenge – not just technological but social. In countries such as as the UK, there is an opportunity to provide the best in remote education to the most deprived areas and government should work not just to have federalism in schools but also ensure that the best schools (many of them independent – i.e. private, fee-paying schools and benefitting from charitable status) are required to provide such learning modules as part of their charitable status. Excellence can be shared in ways that teacher transfer agreements cannot be – from one to one to one to many. The same can be done throughout education.

The challenge is then to promote the ethos of the best – and that links to parental and community responsibility and access. However, the learning essentials can be made real.

Elsewhere, education opportunities can be established where none exist now. Here the challenges may be those of normal business (where bribery and corruption are the norm) or where real social attitudes need radical change – and may lead to threats against the educated for just taking advantage of the opportunity. In Afghanistan, there is a deep-seated social antipathy to girls taking advantage of education. In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai is a shining example of the courage of a girl (and her father) determined to be educated as well as a dismal example of the threats against such progress.

Nevertheless, technology opens up the opportunities and the creative destructionism that is on offer is being backed by individuals and companies and by some governments. the opportunities are now endless.

“Farewell, fair cruelty” – The Age of anti-welfare

The “Safety Net”

Ian Duncan-Smith has introduced a new system of welfare payments in the UK that seeks to better link payments to the sick, disabled and those out of work to their ability to find work and get paid for work. His (and his government’s stance) is that since the introduction of welfare payments (brought in by the post-WWII Labour government following the Beveridge Report in 1942), the world has changed and welfare has become a “right”  that needs to be changed.

Churchill had previously voiced his view that a safety net be provided to all those in society who fell on hard times. In 2006, Greg Clark  (now Financial Secretary to the Treasury) urged the Tories not to be caught up in Churchillian rhetoric as: “The traditional Conservative vision of welfare as a safety net encompasses another outdated Tory nostrum – that poverty is absolute, not relative. Churchill’s safety net is at the bottom: holding people at subsistence level, just above the abyss of hunger and homelessness.”

Mr Duncan-Smith, according to Peter Oborn, writing in the Daily Telegraph “is animated by a profoundly Christian vision of free will, redemption, and what it means to be human in a fallen and imperfect world.” It is this vision that hearkens back to Churchill and pushes this coalition government in the direction of the 19th Century.

Individual vs. State

The balance in any modern, developed State is to balance the interests of individuals and State (and also at least think through the requirements and abilities of the third sector / civil society). While, as Oborn writes, Margaret Thatcher ignored the welfare system and the NHS by refusing to substantively alter them, and while Blair and most obviously Brown made them more a political football, Duncan-Smith has taken a view that individuals must be given the incentive to work and stand on their feet.

This fits well in a society still in a state of shock following the banking crisis of 2007/8 and where our sovereign debt position is a massive risk for our future.

It fits with Tory doctrine of the 19th Century (although not with the post-WWII consensus that MacMillan and succeeding Tories espoused).

It fits partially with the Liberals (although not necessarily the Social Democrat wing in the Liberal Democrats) in that the balance between individuals and the State should always veer toward the former – although Liberals will usually point to freedoms and open society issues rather than the “incentives” that Duncan-Smith talks about.

Welfare Stands Alone

The problem is that while it is possible that Duncan-Smith has a mission and feels genuinely that welfare needs to be changed, the world is not just about welfare. It is also about economics and opportunity. Attempting to change welfare benefits (which will naturally come down hardest on the weakest sections of society) without successfully managing up the fortunes of the wider economy and critical areas such as education (a crucial force for change and a massive “enabler” in ensuring people have the skills and capabilities that allow them to stand on their feet) cannot work.

Even Samuel Smiles (the 19th Century author of Self-Help) said: “I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses… Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.” (my underlining).

Government is split into different areas of control and it is a real dilemma. If David Cameron really wishes to go back to the 19th Century and bring in welfare reforms that attempt to force people to work or lose benefits, then the same Government has, at least, to generate the capabilities that will allow them to do so.

This means that George Osborne and his Ministers have to attack our substantial problems of growth (or the lack of it) while we seem to be entering a Japanese-style lost decade.

This means that Michael Gove (himself on a mission) has to ensure that those areas of greatest need in education (which are the areas most adversely impacted by Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms) receive the resources (investment and brainpower) that they need. This could, for example, mean forcing top quality schools (from private and public sectors) to link up with worst performing schools in the country much as Lord Adonis tried to do voluntarily as he describes in his recent book “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools”.

Of course, this means jointly pursuing policies as a Government rather than addressing individual issues one at a time because individual Ministers want to make a name for themselves.

Of course, this is the job of a Prime Minister (and in a Coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister) to see that the key decisions of each Ministry complement each other. They have failed to see how disjointed it all is and failed to understand the changes that have been put in place since the 19th Century that repels the drive to go back in time.

Back to the Poor Laws

There is a real danger that the failure to articulate a vision by our politicians, allied to an economic position that is perilous is leading the UK (or at least England) back to the Poor laws as articulated in 1834. This was the age of the workhouse as described so well by Charles Dickens. The 19th Century zeal, which Duncan-Smith is bringing to bear, is allied to monetarism and austerity together with an education philosophy which focuses on individual schools (Academies) without much understanding of how to best ensure the worst ones thrive.

This means that a “perfect storm” is likely to erupt: an economy of austerity, a goodbye to welfare and a lack of educational opportunity where it is needed. This may be seen in the future as a Government that forgot the riots of 2011 much like the riots against the Poor Laws in the 1830’s.

Modern times deserve modern remedies and better leadership

The challenge for any Government in a post-2007 world is to sufficiently understand the role it places in providing the underpinning for a thriving society. This is not the old Tory rule from the top – where the top 3% get the resources and everyone hopes for a trickle down effect. The class system in the UK – no longer just three – may have been dispersed but the political class may not have yet picked up on their duties.

Whether or not many welfare recipients have pro-actively taken themselves out of the work markets and work ethics, Government’s job is to enable them to come back into the market. This means motivating and educating at the same time as gradually changing the rewards structure.

Tell a workforce that they are pathetic and they will become so. Tell people that they are work-shy scroungers and they will not co-operate. Cameron and Osborne (and Gove) understand little about leadership. They want to show leadership by forcing issues not by motivation (or nudging – I understand they read that book – shame they never read any on good leadership) in the same way that the Upper Classes ruled in the 19th Century.

Modern times need a government that motivates and has a vision that is constant throughout – not a bunch of managers with no sense of leadership.

This should mean that rhetoric changes to encouragement not estrangement in a way that Miliband’s desire for “One Nation” (Disraeli) is meant to work. Within that rhetoric (maybe the start of some vision), the economic policies of sustainable growth have to be applied not just hope that austerity will somehow work and shift us to private economy growth; within that rhetoric, an education system that drives the worst schools to function along with the connectivity with local people (including parents); within that rhetoric, a welfare system that rewards such involvement in the community – not just salaried work.

The latter means that people should be able in a modern society to be able to work in a variety of areas – within civil society – rather than for a pittance in a salaried job. This also means spending time with kids where the worst performing schools are victims of poverty and estrangement of parents and local leadership.

This is joined up Government where each part of government takes fully into account what is happening in other sectors of society. It is not what we have now.

Farewell, fair cruelty was said by Viola in Twelfth Night – Viola was trying it on – a woman pretending to be a man.

Duncan-Smith is worried about welfare beneficiaries who shouldn’t be getting welfare – people who are not what they say they are.

This government is pretending to be showing leadership – it isn’t. It is merely repeating the mistakes of their forebears from 200 years ago.

Farewell welfare, indeed. We run the risk of becoming an anti-welfare society that alienates huge sections of it while the rest of government stands aside. Time for some vision and leadership and for this government to understand the impact one part has on another – Duncan-Smith needs Osborne and Gove to help him succeed.  Malvolio’s experiences in Twelfth Night may also be educational for Ian Duncan-Smith – he was also a man more sinned against than sinning.

Education and Equal Concern

I was at two contrasting events this week that provided strong connections.

The first was the Annual Prize Giving at Ashmole Academy, where I am Chair of Governors / Directors. Our guest of honour was Professor A C (Anthony) Grayling – one of this country’s best-known philosophers and writer on ethics through books such as “Liberty in the Age of Terror”. He has also recently opened the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London – a new private university.

The second was the inaugural meeting of the Board of Directors of Future Brilliance Limited – a not-for-profit set up by Sophia Swire, a courageous and hugely talented woman who has spent much of her life working to improve the lives of Afghans. Future Brilliance – Afghanistan has already begun work to provide business skills training and business opportunities to young Afghans and has a focus on especially improving access to woman for education and business in Afghanistan.

Education

I introduced Anthony Grayling to parents and students and quoted from his book mentioned above – a quote he himself had taken from Ronald Dworkin’s “Sovereign Virtue”:  “Equality must be understood in terms of the equal concern for its citizens that any legitimate government must show  – equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny” and equality of resources or opportunities, giving everyone a fair start in making something of their lives.”

The concept of “equal concern” for all is not about providing everyone with the same standard of living but a desire to provide everyone with the same opportunities. It is up to the individual how they exploit those opportunities.

Anthony Grayling gave an excellent talk to our students. He described how we only have around 1,000 months to live and 2/3rds are spent sleeping and shopping or similar. That leaves just 1/3rd of our lives to do something meaningful. He believes that we should use our time in education to broaden our knowledge, ask questions, to develop the enquiring mind.

This was brought home by Sir James Dyson’s comments about education – where he decried the reading of French lesbian poetry as his example of a liberal, humanities-based education rather than one focused on science and engineering. Michael Gove defended the former. Anthony Grayling provided a very good set of reasons for ensuring that the humanities gain equal concern.

At Ashmole Academy, we have developed the ability to help students pass the exams they need and at the right level to gain acceptance to Russell Group Universities (and a large percentage do this in science and maths) but also produce individuals ready and equipped to face the world. Ashmole is non-selective and provides equal concern for all students – providing that equality of opportunities that gives everyone a fair start in making something of their lives. If only that was true of the whole education system in this country – where there is a major disparity between independent (alpha schools) and maintained sectors (although we believe Ashmole now challenges that assertion) and between good maintained schools (beta) and those who struggle (epsilon) for any number of reasons – see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/the-fight-over-education/  We do not have equal concern yet borne out by the equality of opportunity.

Equality of Opportunity

However, in the UK we are blessed when compared to the range of destructive problems that exist in countries like Afghanistan. The problems are well known but the solutions are tough to consider let alone implement. In 2014, US and UK troops are expected to leave and it is there will be a major exodus of the brightest and best as the Taliban threat grows.

Sophia Swire has been working in Afghanistan for some time to improve the lives of those working to make the most of their lives. I met her at Global Witness – an anti-corruption NGO – when she was working with the World Bank. The Future Brilliance task is to develop young Afghans to benefit from the huge potential that their natural resources offer them by building their skills and business base within a code of ethics and good governance.  The US and UK are now working to provide financing in the next two years to help this process before they pullout – to work to get traction amongst the people who have been traumatised by the Taliban and by war and, to an extent, by aid programmes.

What is clear is that the country is also beset by corruption and a weariness that people struggle to shake off. This weariness is because the various governing classes, whether politicians, tribal chiefs or Taliban, have a view of leadership that we find out of date. There is no equality of concern. Concern is primarily for those already in leadership positions and a country that develops this manner of leadership will not break out from its current trauma.

Beyond this, of course, Afghanistan has a view of women (in general) that we see as 16th Century. Religion-blamed customs keep women from education and business in most cases. Like Malala, the young girl shot by terrorists in Pakistan, young women struggle to be allowed any freedoms – whether for the right to be educated or to enter into business. Again, customs deny equal concern for its citizens.

As A C Grayling highlighted in his book “Liberty in the age of Terror”, in the West, we have fought hard for centuries to secure basic human freedoms such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this country, we have witnessed the strain that terrorism has wrought as freedoms have been whittled away for the cause of security. But, human rights have to be based on equal concern for all. In a world that is now so interlinked, it is impossible to close our eyes at the problems in other countries. To a large extent, their problems are ours. Terrorism affects us in the UK in heavier security that reduces our freedoms. It is better to also work towards improvements in those countries where terrorism is bred. Acknowledgement human rights and of economic improvement are crucial not via handouts and aid (except in emergencies) but through the use of focused assistance to bolster the ability to help themselves and to relentlessly work to rid the country of corruption.

To succeed, government has to show equal concern for all its citizens – to provide the fair start – and it has to start with education (both boys and girls) and lead into business and wider, governmental responsibilities.

In the UK, education for all must be an equal concern as we struggle to get our worst schools anywhere near the level of acceptability. The same struggle (but, with horrendous consequences of failure) exists in countries like Afghanistan. “Equal concern is the sovereign virtue of political community: without it government is only tyranny.”  Whether in education at home or in the fight against terrorism abroad, the same ethical principle is true. In the global economy, it is essential that everyone has “a fair start in making something of their lives.”

Schools get fleeced – and we all watch

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently published an article (http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/09/25/schools-fleeced-by-it-scammers/comment-page-1/#comment-9117) following the exposure on Panorama (BBC 1) that schools in the UK had been “fleeced” by IT companies (“scammers”). The article and Panorama drew attention to schools which are burdened by the need to run themselves as businesses and are often ill-equipped to do so when set against the complicated requirements of funding, procurement, suppliers and the like.

 

The BIJ summed up the problem with the thought that the FMSiS (Financial Management Standard in Schools) had been wrongly abolished and that the Government should think again. It was abolished after it had become a paper ticking exercise as reported by the Government in 2010 in their White Paper – “The Importance of Teaching” – http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a0067711/government-announces-end-of-complex-school-financial-reporting-tool.

 

The BIJ article missed the fact that most of the schemes that Panorama reported on were entered into while the FMSiS was in place!

 

Why is Finance so hard for non-profits (public and private sector)?

 

This does not just happen in Schools – it happens wherever greater knowledge is brought to bear.

 

So, the banks have run out of control and, five years’ later, we remain stunned that the financial regulators did not see this coming – or even understand the huge range of sub-prime schemes, poor management controls, over-leveraging, bad morality, lack of risk aversion, inability for banks to fail, dislike of customers and similar.

 

In the same way, companies like Enron fooled their highly paid auditors (some of whom connived with them) – we never learned much from that or from the countless, other financial scams that have been served up on unsuspecting publics since at least the south Sea Bubble in 1720 and for thousands of years before.

 

But, we expect more from public sector and the third sector organisations that supposedly guard our taxes and donations. What makes it so hard for them to adequately ensure that the financial and support arms of those organisations are able to be a good as all those they work with?

 

Where the incentives are

 

Of course, much has been written about how the wealth potential of banks suck in those with the highest intelligence and motivation (and maybe those with the lowest ethics) and that the regulators are filled with those who cannot compete – maybe those who failed to make it in banking themselves.

 

Enron was full of highly motivated and driven people who bought into a scheme (or schemes) and worked like fury to implement their scam / scheme. The manipulation of an energy market was not understood by the regulators and auditors just as auditors and clients failed to understand how Bernie Madoff was making such returns on their “investments”.

 

In a money-driven economy, which has created tremendous wealth for society, there are, at the margins and even more in the centre, incentives provided to people that lure those who are massively motivated and driven to participate – to work 24 hours a day, to spend their time working up schemes to make money and their companies profitable. Business is a money-driven part of the economy in a way that the non-profit sectors (be they public or private sector) are not. The latter are full of people driven (and maybe just as motivated) by other things – a passion for human rights, for education, for people, for society – but not for the thing that drives those they may meet at the interface of private sector and the non-profits.

 

As Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society, public goods are always at a disadvantage in a market-driven economy and the crucial problems always exist at the interface between the two.  I tackled this is a previous post – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=192&action=edit – and the inability of societies to establish how to provide the “social balance” to which Galbraith refers enables the problems to persist – such as the fleecing of schools in the UK.

 

Enabling the “social balance”?

 

The “social balance” (Galbraith ibid) is about how society reacts to private enterprise. The most obvious example is the automobile – private industry propels the development of cars but it is the public sector that provides the roads, traffic control and policing, emergency services and hospitals (usually), pollution control and similar. India is a great and recent example – http://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/india-car-sales-soar-where-054302682.html. But, the ability of the private sector runs well ahead of the ability of the public sector to react.

 

Nowhere is this lack of social balance clearer than in the provision of expertise in “back office” areas in the public sector and in the third sector. While their front of office capabilities may be excellent, the non-profit sector cannot, in the main, recruit the best people (it cannot offer financial incentives to match anything like the private sector) and therefore its systems and processes fall well behind.

 

This is compounded by the continuous belief by government that they have to “do something” directly (like the FMSiS above) and in the third sector that anything spent outside of front end is a waste of money. Donors (whether governments, trusts and foundations, companies or individuals) suddenly have a different mindset as soon as they donate. How many would ask companies to stop spending on finance operations – yet, many donors insist that their donations can only be applied to front end work – the cause – and nothing to overheads. While it is good to keep overheads low, governance and financial management dictate that these “enabling” areas of any organization (like people management training) are as good as the front end operations so as not to stymie the work of the charity, NGO or pubic sector organization.

 

Having worked in all sectors (with most of my working life in the private sector) it is clear to me that the non-profit sectors are continuously starved of capability and expertise in the areas that could make them far more efficient and capable – not just to survive but also to enable far better work to be accomplished. If they work well it is in spite of the problems put in their way. Most don’t manage and the failures of the public sector to manage large IT projects, for example or the non-profit sector to survive continue.

 

So, how can the non-profits develop a response to the needed social balance so that they don’t get fleeced?

 

Pro-activity in the social balance

 

Governments and those who provide central governance to the non-profit sectors have undertaken so many actions and some have provided stability. But, each sector and those within it are challenged continuously.

 

What is needed is first, recognition that there is a problem. Each sector should assess where the main problems lie and government has to step up and signal that it will not do everything but begin to be the chief enabler for the non-profits. For example, restrictive funding for charities, whereby donors only provide money for front-end purposes, should not be allowed. The practice is akin to shareholders telling companies which part of the business their funding is allowed on. It is not a loan – it is a donation and restrictions mean more bureaucracy and less ability for the charity to manage itself.

 

If a donor believes that a charity spends too much on overheads, it can withhold donations just like a shareholder can invest elsewhere – but restricting funding in this way is counter-productive.

 

In the UK, this is something for the charities Commission and government to act on.

 

Second, there has to be a stepping up on ability – which will lead to improved processes and systems (although improvements in each need money as well and the proposal above is one way of directing more into this area).

 

This stepping up of ability should be driven by government who should require firms of accountants to do what the legal profession does – provide at least 2% pro-bono capability into non-profits. I have been highly impressed by law firms’ ability to do excellent pro-bono – less so by the finance industry.

 

CSR divisions of companies should also be driving their best finance people into non-profits – in a meaningful way to address the social imbalance.

 

Governments should look to reward those who go from the private sector into the public or third sector (even for a time) with tax incentives (much like students having to repay their student loans). It is not a great time to do this, but it would indicate a lot.

 

Third, the big accounting organisations should ensure that they focus more attention on public sector and third sector – understanding the problems and devising exams and maybe alternative paths to accreditation rather than the one-size-fits-all approach. Certainly, the CIPFA and IPSASB provide the basics for the public sector but the incentivisation for the best to go into that sector let alone education or charities / NGO’s is far less and the number of accountants that enter the charity sector (for example) with the same skill levels and drive as those in the private sector is small.

 

Fourth, trustees from private sector organisations have to become involved – not just from a governance standpoint but setting examples and putting the bar as high as it needs to go to make the enablers work. This is hands-on stuff not just remote governance.

 

Separate sectors, common interests

 

Except in a society where the three sectors don’t exist (e.g. communist states), the challenge is greatest at the intersections of society – where the sectors clash. Yet, as in the example of automobiles above (or any other transportation systems), different sectors live off each other – and the charity sector fills many of the gaps that society does not see fit to fill in private or public sectors.

 

The sectors need to be different, of course, but there does need to be a far better understanding of the problems that our economic structures throw up and how to deal with them or fleecing of our schools will recur but be seen to be a mere tip of the social iceberg.

 

 

 

 

Middle East – repression and rigor mortis

Four Franciscan monks shouted in al-Aqsa that “Mohammad was a libertine, murderer, glutton,” who believed in “whoring”! The qadi offered them the chance to recant. When they refused, they were tortured and beaten almost to death. A bonfire was built in the courtyard of the Church where “almost drunk with rage” the mob hacked them into pieces “so that not even a human shape remained”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Jerusalem”

The assault on the American consulate in Libya consisted of two separate attacks that forced the Americans from the consulate and then besieged them in a second building in a gun battle that lasted four and half hours, according to a detailed timeline from a senior administration official.

The bloody offensive by extremists killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In addition, three more U.S. personnel were wounded.

ABC NEWS

We know that the second quote above happened just days ago. The first was in 1391 – 621 years ago.

The first was direct – but, even then, the four monks were given a chance to repent and were the instigators of the attacks themselves.

The second was the result of a second-rate short film that was made by people totally unconnected to those that died in the US Embassy in Libya.

621 years separates the two examples – 621 years of great technological and wealth advancements across the world. But, 621 years where, in some places, there has been regression, not progress, and where repression (of freedom, freedom of thought, of economic progress and education) has left in its wake a mind-system that is mired in the 14th Century or before.

Lessons unlearned

The break-up of Yugoslavia (a state held together under the iron-grip of Tito) provided lessons that we ignore to today.  Thousand-year-old conflicts and hatreds which had been suppressed since communism’s rule came to the surface and yielded to bloodshed and ethnic cleansing.

So, the Arab Spring has erupted in tensions coming to the surface in the one location that has, for many years, been seen as the powder keg of the world. No surprise, surely?

Repression in the Middle East has been there for thousands of years. We don’t expect democracy and freedom of thought to suddenly erupt in China (or most don’t) but a few despots are overthrown in Tunisia and Libya and rejoicing takes place. We ignore the simmering tensions that such societies have endured for centuries as we assume that democracy will fix everything.  The West kept many regimes in place, drew many of the borders ourselves (often, borders which made no sense and instilled more tensions – such as in Sudan), sought oil supplies and the propping up of regimes to see to it that our energy supplies continued, tolerated the bribery and corruption and power that elites gave to themselves and enabled companies to make those bribes for the last 100 years.

Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today. He said that he had travelled 87 times in the last few years to the Middle East and that it would “take a generation” for countries to settle into new institutions and systems that would prevent such tensions. While he has enormous knowledge of this area, a “generation” is no time at all – but, while a lot can be done in that time, the tensions are not just on the surface but deep.

Education and opportunity

The Middle East and North Africa have not just opened up to our version of the 21st Century. In our new global economy, we have focused our attention on to the newly developing nations of China, India, Brazil and others and have tended to ignore these deeply repressed regions. War and repression have characterized them for two thousand years. Elites have conquered their way to glory and wealth where religion has been used as an excuse. Religious extremism has been embedded for so long that we see it as the core issue. But, extremism in Christianity was common in the thirteenth Century and before – the Crusades were rooted in violence and death.

The changes that took place in Christianity (which was, in its earlier days, not wedded to the “turn the other cheek” dictum) have been profound but took centuries as first rulers broke away from theocracies, began to rule on behalf of their subjects (rather than being above the law) and allowed the dissemination of justice and then economic progress to be shared amongst the population. As this happened, the repression of one’s own subjects ceased to be the norm (although fascism, Nazi-ism and Stalinist and Maoist Communism attempted to break the deal).

Elsewhere, theocracies or dictatorships continue. Overthrowing despotism does not overthrow the belief systems underneath.

This is the core of the issue – the longer that institutions are allowed to fester, the worse the situation erupts when change takes place. Ossified institutions repress change and thought. The Middle East is worse – the institutions are in a state of rigor mortis. Beneath, the potential for unrest is striking – even with the numbers of liberal-minded, the mass of the populations are poor – in terms of education and wealth.

Chances

In the West, we talk about wanting to give our kids the best chance in life through education. In the Middle East, where we tolerate and even support regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain because of their oil, we are relatively powerless to the onslaughts of hatred.

But, in a global society, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Can we help the Middle East and Africa, so long under the repression of dictators and theocracies, to not just overthrow those elites that bind them but to also embrace a culture that we believe works? Can Western ideals of freedom of thought, religious tolerance (or tolerance of no religion), economic freedom and wealth creation shared amongst the population be brought into the thinking of these countries? Can institutions and sclerotic minds be changed?

As we battle economically with the Chinese (and hope that the repressed emotions between the Chinese and Japanese does not get out of control over Diaoyu / Senkaku), we have to battle with the repressed institutions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as much as Syria, Libya and Somalia or DRC. This is a never-ending battle of ideas and betterment – the belief that whatever one’s views on the afterlife, ensuring that this life should be a good one is as important and that no individual (or elite) deserves to capture all the chances. Chances have to be spread to as wide a sector of the population as possible.

This is not the culture of 1000 AD – it is the culture of the 21st Century – and a battle that is worth waging. We live in a global economy but also a close-knit world beyond economics – fuelled by communication systems that work to inform and dis-inform – fast and furious.

Opportunities

Old and outdated institutions will, eventually, explode under the weight of their inadequacy. But, explosions can hurt. Just as our own institutions need to be overhauled when they don’t work (and there are many instances of this in the West – where we continuously run the risk of institutional failure) so we should help where it is clear that repression exists through institutional rigor mortis.

Recent moves to support the new opportunities being created in countries like Tunisia and Libya should not be stopped because some of the repressed have not been given chances to improve their understanding of reality and have over-reacted to a film made to incite.  We should now support those like Mohamed Morsi in Egypt who has said: “We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet, but it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.”

This is an act of bridging – between the repressed and the future – which we should now be supporting. Opportunities have to be developed and out of the super-charged environment, so reminiscent of that which operated over 600 years ago, the West should react positively. Changes may take a long time and we may find that other disasters (such as to our environment) may well get in the way. But, Blair is right on this one. We have to keep engaging.

Governance – From Osborne to Diamond – where is it?

If we wanted to see bad governance issues at their most raw – in all sectors of society – then maybe this was the week.

First – Corporate governance was shown to be completely awry at Barclays, where Bob Diamond’s testimony showed so clearly that non-execs that should have been applying governance strictures were so out of the picture.

Second – the public sector and education, where Michael Gove in a strange speech at FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools) said he knew what “good governance” looked like (fascinating to hear a politician talk about good governance!) and criticized many existing school boards as:

A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.

Third – charities, where governance was held up at an ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) conference to be a critical problem and the split between Chief Execs and Trustees very problematical (nearly 30 are seeking urgent advice from ACEVO on this issue).

Fourth – Government via the astonishing spat between Messrs. Osborne (our Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Ed Balls (his shadow) over banking and LIBOR – or worse, their obvious hatred for each other.

Across the nation – Governance in doubt

We clearly have a crisis of governance across the nation and in all sectors. Government, public sector, corporates and Third Sector all exhibit problems where real strains are showing and proper governance is often missing.

Gove’s comments (which show political mannerisms at their worst) can be spread across all areas if we want to.

The role of non-executive directors, trustees, governors or similar is crucial in organisations. Their importance is completely under-estimated in the same way that the importance of backbenchers in Parliament is. This showed so clearly in the Osborne / Balls playground fight this week and showed how dangerous it is when the Executive is a major part of the Legislature (as we have it in the UK) and back-benchers are unable to confront the over-weaning egos of the front-benchers.

The example shown here – of a senior government minister and his shadow in opposition – was appalling but, unfortunately, does shine a light on society. When recession strikes, the worst examples of society come to light.

What’s going wrong?

Much is actually right in sectors of society that organize themselves into such oganisations such as companies, public sector bodies and Third Sector organisations. But, there is a crucial link that is not sufficiently understood and where traditional rules don’t really work anymore – and, where they do work, are rubbished by politicians pursuing a political agenda.

The link is the one between senior operational staff and Boards. It is the crucial link in any organization.

Corporates

The danger here is the risk that Chief Executive Officers who have got where they are because they are good at what they do but also because they act like steamrollers, often force Boards to concede issues with too little scrutiny. Time is of the essence and information hard to take in when you are a Non-Executive Director (NED) maybe at many corporations and spend a few days a year on each.

The law now lays a heavy burden on NED’s but there remain many who want to bring their skills and knowledge and experience to companies. Most are acceptable to the CEO if they have good connections /networks. Beyond this, they are begrudgingly provided with data and fill remuneration and audit committees and the like, fulfilling a role but often not really involved with the central and driving forces behind the business. Government tinkering with the laws has prescribed the areas of involvement that the law requires and where NED’s have to focus. Areas that are fundamental, like strategy, culture, and ethics, are more likely to be left outside.

The danger becomes real in companies like Enron – which imploded under a Ponzi scheme that should have been obvious to all on the Board. It is endangering one of our best-known banks as it did with RBS and Lloyds-TSB.

Name the major scandals in corporates and then describe the efforts of NED’s to make things right – whether in newspapers and phone hacking, oil industry and health and safety, mining and corruption.

Public Sector

I use the example of schools / academies to show the reverse. Michael Gove, in seeking to set up an array of different schools so that the good ones can “emerge”, is in danger of wrecking education and the potential for good that exists in those schools / academies.

Of course, he was speaking at the FASNA – so, was amongst friends. But, his injudicious language threatens to throw out the good with the bad. I am a Chair of Directors / Governors at an excellent Academy and Gove runs the risk (as all “leaders” do) of demoralizing just the people he should be motivating.

In pursuing his political agenda, he shows he is full of ideas but not allied to the skills of a leader. Schools boards / or governing bodies are full of people who (unlike in corporates) are unpaid and fill positions out of a desire to help kids and the staff that run the schools. Gove is at least ten years out of date with his picture of local worthies – it is not just an insult but shows Gove to be stuck in the 1970’s at best.

At schools, the link between Head and Governors / directors can be bad (as it can in any situation) but is often very good. The role of the board as “critical friend” is enshrined in all that is done and the Head (and some of his / her staff) are on the Board as well. This creates a team that motivates each other to work together and develop a school for its students. Where it works (and it usually does to some extent), it provides enthusiasm as well as governance, skills as well as motivation – on both sides, operational and governance.

Of course, Gove has some insights as schools in difficult areas will have trouble finding the skills needed to fill a board. But, this is down to the location and the need to ensure that they are supported within a structure that works. This is a key area and where successful schools can certainly help.

But, Gove should not ridicule the governance structure in schools – it may be the one area that does work!

Third Sector

Now, I work in this sector as a CEO. I have a good Board but having been in the sector for five years or so (my previous 30 were in the corporate one), it is clear that there is a crisis and it is between CEO’s and the Board.

There is a divide that is unnecessary and needs to be fixed. My concern is that it won’t be because the mind-set of third sector participants is that the charity sector is precious and that there needs to be a separation between boards and operations.

The separation is, I am repeatedly told, because of conflicts of interest. These conflicts, if a CEO becomes a Trustee, means, for example, that the roles are somehow confused and that the Chief Exec can no longer properly comment on staff salary issues because of conflicts of interest (see NCVO website).

The Charities Commission is completely confused. Two requests for information on this yielded completely different responses in the last couple of weeks – both suggested a board would need to ensure no conflicts of interest but while one said they would need to approve the appointment and one did not, neither could attest to the specific conflicts that would be in evidence.

What this means is that the separation (which does not happen in Education – and a school is no less precious) is maintained for little reason and the huge benefits – teamwork, joint motivation, openness for example – are lost in the preciousness.

It needs to change and fast.

Governance and Government

Our government shows itself adrift in its response to good governance by the way it shows itself in parliament. Having the Executive commanding the legislature is bad enough but requires a more magisterial quality. Osborne and Balls would not know that if it hit them between the eyes.

It is important that organisations are properly run. They have an enormous impact on society and are a key part of it. It can be argued that civil society has lost its control over organisations as government (our supposed defenders) has clearly shown no tendency to take itself seriously. Osborne and Gove are poor exemplars.

There may be no excuse for the rioters of last summer in England, but the tendency of organisations to show lack of leadership is troublesome and leadership is needed.

The future of Governance

Sectors of society like the three (or maybe four) mentioned above work in silos and come up against each other from time to time. There is much in common and governance issues affect each and all of them.

Governance is the method of governing – it applies to us nationally, internally and within organisations to which most of us belong. Good governance is crucial to the way society works but it is under threat.

The future of society depends on good governance and we now need to unravel the workings of a hundred years of legal doctrine to develop improvements throughout all the sectors of our society.

We need structures that combine strategy and operations, directors / trustees / governors and business / organizational leaders, but where the non-executives are provided with the skills and time to address the concerns that society has.

At the same time, Chief Execs need to be able to explain the key drivers that make (in their view) the organization work and non-execs should be able to investigate for themselves.

Gove wants Ofsted to rigorously assess governors in the way they monitor Heads. Fine (if they had any understanding of what that means and the ability to do it) but who is doing this in corporates – maybe the auditors or some other independent body for any publicly listed company?

Finally, different sectors should not be isolated from each other. NEDs, trustees, governors have a lot in common but all operate to completely separate rules and guidelines. It is time for some common dialogue as civil society (which includes everyone) is getting pretty sick and tired of the mess that organisations are in.