Public Sector - The Restless Reformer: An Interview with Lord Adonis

Related Expertise: Education, Public Sector

The Restless Reformer: An Interview with Lord Adonis

Lord Adonis pioneered the academy school movement in Britain. Academies are funded centrally by the state but are self-governing, and they enjoy a much greater degree of autonomy than do other types of schools. In his latest book, Education, Education, Education, Andrew Adonis tells the story of academies, from the initial concept for reform in the 1990s through today’s national movement.

Recently, Lord Adonis spoke with Adrian Brown, a principal in the London office of The Boston Consulting Group, about the nature of reform and its challenges. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.

You’ve been described as one of the most reforming U.K. politicians of modern times. What makes a great reformer?

I’m a professional optimist, so I believe that it’s possible for government to bring about radical change for the better. Too often reforms stall or get watered down before they have a chance to make an impact. To succeed, reformers need to bear in mind a number of clear lessons.

First, address the big problems. Power is finite and evaporates much faster than you expect. So you have to focus your energies on large not small problems. As a political historian, I am struck by how few ministers leave much of a mark, despite the supposed power of their offices. Those who do succeed are the ones who find ways to exploit the full resources of politics and government.

Second, keep it simple. In my experience, almost all the solutions to big problems are simple. Complexity comes from trying to avoid or qualify the simple solution because it is unpalatable. Of course you need to be simple and right, not simple and wrong. And finding the right, simple solution involves a good deal of research and experience.

Finally, leadership and communication are vital. As a reforming politician, you need to lead and explain, lead and explain—every single day. The civil service and your party look to you for leadership and so do other allies of reform. If you don’t lead and explain, the administration grinds to a halt, your party becomes restless, and opponents of reform seize the momentum.

These are three of the dozen lessons I outline in my new book. Others include seeking the truth, building a strong team, and championing consumers not producers.

Why do so many reforms in the public sector fail?

Because they don’t follow those clear lessons. In most cases, they are either poorly conceived or poorly implemented. Good reforms are rarely obvious—or rather, the obvious ones have already been done. Instead, reforms require undertaking trial and error, learning from failure, and adapting.

Teach First and academies became two of the most successful and groundbreaking education policies of the Blair years. Yet both followed earlier, failed attempts to deal with the same problems, and both were the result of painful adaptation to learn from this failure. To succeed, policy needs to be constantly adapted and modified in light of implementation. It must not be separate from implementation.

Successful implementation also requires constant micromanagement. Micromanagement by leaders is supposed to be bad whereas “being strategic” is seen as good. But in my experience, micromanagement is essential around decisions and projects that determine the success or failure of a policy. And strategy is too often an excuse for engaging in waffling.

In democracies with a 24-hour news cycle, it is a big issue to be able to demonstrate a consistency of purpose and to have the capacity to persuade. The pressure to run a mile from controversy, although always a feature of democracies, has become much stronger in recent times.

The introduction of academies has been one of the biggest revolutions in England’s school system in recent years. Where did the idea come from?

There was no single source. Academies depended a great deal on successful initiatives with independently managed schools in England, and they also have their roots right back in the very foundations of state education, when church schools were incorporated on an autonomous basis. They also benefitted from prominent initiatives overseas, such as charter schools in the U.S. and free schools in Sweden.

Of course, England’s school system still has much to learn from abroad. For example, I hugely admire the Finnish education system for its high status of teachers and the remarkable success of Finland’s all-ability schools. Much of continental Europe has lessons to teach England with respect to technical education, particularly Germany. And the Far East has a lot to teach us about valuing teachers and helping students to attain exceptionally high results in math and science.

At what point did you feel confident that the academies program was going to succeed?

Reform is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. It took four years of hard pounding before academies moved from being a small experiment to a national policy. The decision to set a target of 200 academies came when there were still only 12 open. Even then, it took another year to gain decisive momentum, and it took an additional two years to gain real political consensus.

Personally, it was only eight years into the academies program when I felt confident that my leadership was no longer essential to its survival and development. Perhaps this might have been true earlier, but it is how things seemed to me at the time.

Your period in office was characterized by rising public expenditure, but many governments around the world must now cut spending dramatically. Is it possible to be radical about policy at a time of radical cuts?

It is possible, but you obviously have to be radical about different things. In a climate of cost-cutting there’s not much point proposing massive upgrades to infrastructure or investments in a bigger, or better-paid, public-service workforce.

On the other hand, the opportunity to cut costs can make some things easier. In my experience, it is very hard to propose and carry out serious cuts to public services—however well merited—during a period of strong public spending. I found it an almost herculean task to even keep spending constant on lesser priorities while overall budgets were increasing.

About Lord Adonis