The Bottom Line: Evan Davis and the adoration of the business magi

Public versus private. Here’s a good story. We’ll come to Evan in a moment.

One of my earliest experiences of educational development was working on a professional development program for primary school head teachers. This was back in the 1980s when political wisdom had it that schools and other public sector work had much to learn from business – to become more entrepreneurial, more incisive decision-makers, more consumer-responsive. Business skills of managing a process from inputting resources to selling a product can, it suggests, be applied to the processing of learners.

So – a businessman – let’s say Tom – is sat in front of around 20 school heads, stumbling his way through a half-formed, lay-persons view of how to teach. These seasoned Headteachers are indulgent, gently tolerant.

Tom sends the Headteachers off on an exercise. They are grouped into threes. The idea is that one will sit in the middle while the other two chatter complex messages to him simultaneously in both ears. Off they go. 20 minutes.

Back they come. Tom explains that what they had experienced was common to our heroic business executive who cannot luxuriate in the typically measured and attenuated pace of public service. The executive has to keep pace with a dog-eat-dog world, make sense of complex incomings, not be distracted or confused – sieve data, prioritise and dump the superfluous.

Tom asks now what their experiences have been. All the Heads respond that they can report all messages they had received. Tom is confused – thrown off balance. One of the Heads explains patiently: “Have you never been in a kindergarten class?!” If you want decision-making complexity, try playing a steady role with multiple kids coming at you constantly all demanding their own. They’ve had years of it. This is hard enough for Tom to absorb, but he deflates when another Head comes in innocently enough with, “and watch out if it’s a windy day!”

A windy day?! Whhha-?

So, all primary school teachers know that on a windy day kids…well,  they get ‘windy’. The wind seems to throw them off balance, feels like it is gusting away the thin veil of discipline that keeps kids compliant. Go into a  classroom in a primary school – it’s brimming with tension, constantly teetering on the edge of chaos. Classroom management is highly sophisticated and requires both skill and courage. Add the wind, and….

Evan Davis hosts two BBC programs – The Bottom Line and Dragon’s Den. Their titles are saturated with those same business values – you have to be heroic to survive the den of dragons and its veteran, battle-hardened super-heroes that are these venerated chief executives. On The Bottom Line Evan interviews senior business managers, indulgently probing the ineffable qualities that allow them to navigate the mysteries of production, marketing, financial negotiations. And, indeed, there are complexities to business management: reading markets to assess risks and opportunities; managing a workforce; understanding opportunity costs; reading and interpreting complex data; negotiating the politics of Board, unions and shareholders.

But how ‘complex’ is complex? After all, the workforce is differentiated (production, sales, marketing, personnel and so on) but all referenced to the narrow business aims and production values of the company. Workers are firmly placed in a hierarchy, subordinate to managers at all levels – and managers (especially middle managers) are supposed to know more than the workers and have higher level skills. The quality of work can be measured by the success of the product hitting the market – few are the arguments of quality, few are the challenges to a senior manager’s assertion of what counts for quality.

By contrast, let’s take the Vice Chancellor of a university – equivalent to the CEO. What does she or he face?

The University of Auckland, as an example, has 30,000-odd students with 5,000 staff – a mix of academic, administrative and occupational workers. Academic staff are highly differentiated in terms of their aims and purposes, working methods, definitions of quality, forms of accountability, credentials, ‘markets’, resourcing and so on. In terms of status, the Vice Chancellor (VC) deals with junior lecturers on career development ladders up to international professors who may be highly esteemed in many countries and universities and who are highly individualistic. A VC manages a ‘production process’ ranging dizzyingly from teachers to philosophers and nuclear physicists, including musicians, nurses, agricultural managers, civil engineers, biomedics and – in a small corner of the enterprise, business managers. Annual revenue is around $1bn and this comes from many sources: government grants, thousands of individual student fees, property management, an equity portfolio, gifts and donations, and university-owned private enterprises. A multi-billion $ property portfolio is constantly shifting and broadening. Staff turnover is high as there is a vigorous competitive market for academic skills. The university is accountable to a governing Board, to the government, to its student/clients and to employers of its graduates, to the citizenry (as ‘the conscience of society’) and to the professions who look to it to satisfy their training needs. Its quality is scrutinised by government as well as a wide range of professional bodies who accredit its work in law, nursing, psychology, civil engineering, medicine, teaching and other fields. The production processes in philosophy, teaching, engineering and linguistics are as divergent as are those between car production, insurance, mobile phones and furniture – but they are under the roof of the same, single enterprise.

The list goes on. Now move away from a university to a police force, a social work department, a hospital, a child disability service and so on. All face enormous complexities – even without the size and breadth of a university. What they share that distinguishes them from many, if not most, private production enterprises is this: that the closer you get to the ‘production process’, to the interface with ‘clients’, to daily practice, the greater the complexity and the skills base required to meet it. A Chief Constable has to manage thousands of professional practitioners (officers), each of whom faces daily challenges that cannot be predicted or externally managed – indeed, the quality of policing, nursing, social work, community mental health rests, more than anything, on the quality of independent decision making right down at the bottom of the organisational pyramid. The chances are that the Chief Constable has policing skills that are well out of date, and knowledge of a community far behind in the recent history of social change. Mobile telephones, alone, changed policing almost beyond recognition in a period of less than 10 years.

Where, then, are the decision making and management heroics? To whom should Evan Davis be in true thrall? Why does he not include public service managers in his panels? More worrying still, what skills and experiences are we buying into when we privatise public services? Evan Davis once wrote a book advocating for privatisation.

There was a famous moment in front of a US Senate Committee when a university President was challenged on why universities should compete with the military for funds. His response – I paraphrase – was, “the military defend our country; universities make the country worth defending”. The same sentiment can be adapted and applied to the sudden elevation of business values to the US and EU governments: ‘business creates wealth; public service gives that wealth meaning and purpose.’ Wealth creation is one thing; negotiating meaning and purpose is quite another.

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