Comment: Better use of the experts can close the implementation gap
The resignation of Sir Kevan Collins as Number 10’s education recovery commissioner is one of the biggest domestic stories of recent weeks. Even in the here today gone tomorrow media frenzy we call news, it was a big splash, front page headlines on virtually every London-based title the day after.
Because education is devolved, Sir Kevan’s departure didn’t have the same cut through in Scotland. But it is far from irrelevant to Holyrood. Quite the reverse – it provides a cautionary tale.
I have to declare an interest. Collins is one of my oldest friends. We arrived at university together more than 40 years ago and have seen each other through big life moments – personal and professional.
Of course, we’ve spoken since he left his post. But I’m not about to spill the beans on what happened. In any case it isn’t something we dwelled on. The rest of life goes on.
I’m also a non-executive at one of the Scottish Government’s major delivery agencies. Mindful of that, I rarely offer commentary on the performance of government. So, my tale isn’t about Holyrood’s education record either. There are, in any case, many more qualified to offer insights on that.
Rather, the learning for me is about the bigger picture – about how we do policy and delivery. As soon as the story broke, I was struck by its relevance to something which has been a major talking point in Scotland pre and post-election – getting things done.
Implementation – or rather the implementation gap – was the theme of a pre-election piece I wrote with Adam Lang, Head of Nesta in Scotland. It wasn’t picked up so much by politicians – perhaps understandably busy on the trail for votes. But it resonated strongly across civil society. And it’s widely acknowledged we have a problem in Scotland. So how do we fix it?
There is no magic bullet. But for some time, my view has been that we need to make much more, and far better, use of experts. With the best will in the world, even our best politicians, and many of our excellent civil servants, are not substantive policy experts. And they don’t necessarily have experience of delivery. Collins ticked both boxes with gusto.
Of course, I’m a tad biased – Kevan is my pal. But since our university days, while I’ve fashioned what is politely known as a portfolio career, he has spent four decades steeped in education.
From teacher to headteacher, and local authority secondment, he went on to head up the national literacy and numeracy strategies at Whitehall. After a spell in local government running children’s services and as a chief executive, he built the renowned What Works centre, the Education Endowment Foundation.
In other words, his experience is long, and his expertise – internationally recognised – is deep. The value of bringing him in as a ‘czar’ wasn’t – or shouldn’t have been – window dressing. He wasn’t there to lend credibility but to identify solutions and make them happen.
In a telling paragraph at the beginning of his article in The Times outlining how he’d reached his decision to resign, Collins said:
“I (resign) thinking about my meetings with over a thousand parents and school leaders over the past four months. Phrases like ‘lost learning’ can feel intangible, but from their testimony and close analysis of assessment data, it is clear that the challenges facing our children are real.”
In Scotland, we have been talking about co-production since the publication of the Christie Commission report a decade ago. Co-production goes much further than traditional citizen participation. Citizens are not only consulted, but part of the conception, design, and delivery of services.
And we have seen co-production with lived experience embedded in the establishment of the social security agency, and now in the implementation of The Promise. All good stuff. But Collins’ involvement, and methodology while all too briefly in post, offers a glimpse of co-production’s Holy Grail.
It throws light on what happens when you invest agency in collaboration between learned and lived experience. Wise heads like Collins engage in active listening and hold what they have heard up to the evidence base in order to find a way to meet delivery challenges square on.
In this model, politicians don’t give power away. They exercise it differently. But the co-production is not merely about the relationship between decision makers and the recipients of services or interventions. And it is not an end in itself.
To stand a chance of making a difference, it must harness the rich mix of expertise – strategic, operational, and technical – that those with delivery experience bring, and the insights and knowledge that those with life experience offer.
Politicians still set the ultimate parameters. But they must be prepared to be challenged. The ultimate lesson of the Collins saga is that when governments ask experts to work with others to solve a wicked problem, they must do so on the basis of trust. And they must be willing to act on what they are told.
If they do so in good faith, implementation gaps can be closed. Anything less is just performative and may do more harm than good.