Serve the servants, or leadership by degrees

Finbarr Livesey describes the courses preparing the leaders of the future with theory, practical insights...and healthy doses of humility

March 31, 2011

The past two years have been extremely challenging for those working in public service, whether in government or in non-governmental organisations, charities or lobbying groups. Public leaders have had to deal with a hard-hitting recession, save capitalism from itself and, for their final trick, attempt to ensure sustainable growth in the global economy.

The future might be even harder to manage. Long-term challenges such as climate change, the ageing of Western populations and the dwindling of natural resources worldwide will dominate decision-making for a generation. How are we preparing those entering public service for this uncertain future? Can the skills needed to navigate these waters be taught?

In what could be seen as a response to these challenges, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are preparing master's courses in public policy, expected to be launched at the end of 2012 and in 2013, respectively.

Much has been made of the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge graduates in the government. Oxford's press office proudly claims that 15 members of the coalition studied philosophy, politics and economics there, and that one-sixth of all MPs hold Oxford degrees. Moreover, 10 of the members of the shadow Cabinet went to Oxbridge.

These new graduate-level courses, however, represent a different approach to training those planning to enter public service.

Such policy-focused degrees did not exist in the UK prior to 2000. Master's degrees in public policy and in public administration have since been launched at University College London, the London School of Economics, the University of Bristol and the University of York, among others. These MPP and MPA degrees are an attempt to professionalise policymaking and to provide professional training in a mode similar to that for law or medicine.

Rather than accept that it is enough to apply a well-educated mind to complex problems, these degrees assert that there are specific skills that can be taught to support decision-making in the public interest. They directly challenge the model of the generalist civil servant and the dominance of economics within central government policymaking.

It used to be that a strong Classics degree was considered sufficient preparation. The age of the generalist stems from the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, presented to Parliament in 1854, which provided the template for entry to the Civil Service. For the authors, it was best to take in young men selected by competition and train them, as "the superior docility of young men renders it much easier to make valuable public servants of them".

This "cult of the generalist", as the Fulton Report called it in 1968 - based on all-rounders who could be placed into any government department - survived deep into the 20th century. It is only slowly disappearing, despite many attempts at reform.

Professional points of entry into government have emerged, for example via the state's legal or statistics services, but certain traits remain dominant in those heading for senior positions. The Fast Stream is "the talent management programme for graduates who have the potential to become the future leaders of the Civil Service". In 2009 there were 629 successful applicants through the Fast Stream process. Just over a quarter had graduated from Oxbridge, a quarter had degrees in economics and just under a third had first degrees in the humanities.

From the entry statistics, it does not appear that civil servants with scientific or technical backgrounds are being used beyond specialist roles, for example in the Government Office for Science.

There is a move to broaden the Fast Stream to produce more than policy specialists. Such alterations will potentially change the nature of those accepted, but will take time to have an impact.

Meanwhile, existing policy degrees in the UK will continue to play an important role in preparing future public leaders. The content and teaching methods for many of the UK's MPP courses seem relatively traditional - a classic master's degree rather than a Classics master's degree. Most of the existing courses seem to provide a staple diet of macro- and microeconomics, some elements of public accounting, a smattering of electives tied to a traditional research thesis and a strong dose of the theory behind policymaking.

In a different approach, the London School of Economics appears to have adopted the US model: degrees that are two years long, offering significant professional practice training.

But the nature of policymaking has changed radically over the past 20 or 30 years. In the past, public policy was the preserve of the senior civil servant rather than a team sport (think Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister). Now, according to Ngaire Woods, who is leading the development of the new Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford, "the policymaking process is more open, more textured" within government, in think tanks, civil society organisations and, increasingly, among the public at large.

Courses in policy and leadership cannot assume that they are training the highest levels of the Civil Service, but must provide training that can be used across civil society.

This opening up of the policy process has led to wider engagement with the issues, but the volume of information that must be absorbed has risen significantly. The danger is that without clear structures to help communication and synthesise the wealth of evidence and opinion, decisions are made by those with the loudest bullhorn. Rather than increasing the quality of the democratic process, this can stifle debate and lead to less favourable outcomes.

The time allowed for decision-making has also shrunk, driven by tighter media cycles and a culture that expects results quickly.

"There are demands for decisions to be made faster than can be rationally done," says David Howarth, one of the founders of the Cambridge programme, along with Andrew Gamble and David Cleevely.

Howarth, reader in land economy at Clare College, Cambridge, has a particular understanding of the policy process, having served as the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2005 to 2010. He stood down in order to return to academic life.

"The increasing pressure on individuals at the top of the system to act in ways that appear to be decisive adds to the pressures on those that advise them," he said.

This can weaken the use of evidence and structured decision-making.

But perhaps the most significant change is that more decisions are global in nature. Choices made on immigration or energy policy in one country will affect others, and so effective decision-making tends to span national boundaries. This tension between national interest and the global implications on some issues is almost impossible to resolve. It is increasingly difficult to determine whether leading universities are preparing national or international leaders.

Given these radical changes, what should the new masters in public policy focus their teaching on? A new generation of public leaders must have an understanding of the complex environment in which they will operate. Can these institutions provide the preparation required?

Both Oxford and Cambridge are trying to look anew at the needs of the policymaking profession. As Woods says: "We're attempting to break open the narrow professionalisation of policy."

Both institutions intend to offer a one-year course. Rather than focusing on any particular discipline or perspective, they plan to train future leaders in how to make decisions, evaluate evidence and, crucially, understand the broad context of making decisions in the public interest. However, there will be some emphasis on an understanding of science, which underpins many large policy issues from climate change to economic growth.

As both programmes are being developed, differences are already emerging. For example, Oxford regards itself as training global leaders whereas the Cambridge course is focused on the UK and European Union levels first, and a global perspective second. This will doubtless lead to a difference in emphasis.

Although the political context is different, both take their cue from the US experience.

The original MPP degrees appeared in the US when the Ford Foundation funded eight new programmes, including those at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Although courses that prepared public administrators to manage large government departments existed before the late 1960s, the MPP courses were very different. As Derek Bok, president of Harvard at the time, wrote in his 1974 annual review: "Universities have a major...responsibility to set about the task of training a corps of able people to occupy influential positions in public life. What is needed is nothing less than the education of a new profession."

"I can't deny the advantages of having an established franchise here at Harvard, but in a way I envy Oxbridge making a fresh start," says John Donahue, faculty chair of the MPP at Harvard.

"The case for the MPP today - amid stark public challenges and scant resources, when the biggest issues sprawl across jurisdictional and disciplinary boundaries, when analysis and management increasingly merge - is actually stronger than it was when we started."

His own school focuses strongly on the practical aspects of policy decision-making and a multidisciplinary approach. A highlight is the "spring exercise", which involves a two-week simulation of a current policy decision, forcing the students to operate as a team, assimilate large amounts of information quickly and then provide a detailed briefing to a senior policymaker.

The Oxford programme will adopt a similar approach, with plans afoot to have policymakers provide masterclasses to students on policy challenges they have faced, as well as integrating science and engineering into what previously might have been traditional classes covering economics and law.

Some will argue that leadership cannot be taught (even if the core skills can). But while the oratory and organisational skills of another Barack Obama are unlikely to emerge in a classroom setting, these graduate degrees can provide a form of accelerated experience. The key is to recognise that these degrees are practical training rather than research training.

"The latter would recognise incomplete information and say you need to do more research, while the former would help you to take a decision," says Woods.

For Howarth, it is crucial to recognise the limits of traditional academic approaches.

"It would be a disaster if we assumed that academics knew more about the policy process than those in it."

Another concern is that as the cost of education rises and the economy continues to falter, a large proportion of the graduates of these new programmes may not enter public service. Since 2006, on average a third of the Harvard Kennedy School's graduates have moved into the private sector (although it is unclear whether this is by choice).

Having senior managers in the private sector with some understanding of the pressures on the public sector could help soften the business-government relationship. But it is a challenge to provide future public servants with the best training possible without burdening them with debt that makes public service impossible.

It will also be important for the new UK programmes to have a broad intake. As Howarth puts it: "We need to get away from stereotypes of what a good policymaker looks like and devise ways of bringing in able people from many different backgrounds."

And courses in public policy cannot guarantee excellence in public leadership. As David Ellwood, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School, has repeatedly said: "Have some humility."

Institutions such as Oxford and Harvard and centres of power such as London and Washington DC do not immediately spring to mind when contemplating humility, but without it the graduates of their programmes will be weaker leaders.

In Ellwood's opinion, "the best public servants remember that they serve the public. That requires a capacity to listen and believe that there are a range of ideas that you've got to hear." Such humility is difficult to teach, but vital for our future leaders to know and to practise.

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