$10 Million for consultants: a further step from reality

Jun 3, 2023
Classmates learning in the classroom.

Last year the NSW Education Department paid almost $10 million to Deloitte Consultants for ‘expert’ advice, not to mention how much of tax-payers revenue went into the pockets of the disgraced PWC for similar nonsense. This reliance on outside know-how is a ‘logical’ step up from the failed policy of governments employing experts in leadership to head up their departments. What return did we get? After all this time, NSW school system is on life support evidenced by the abject failure of this experts’ approach.

The new Labor Government, particularly the Minister for Education is searching the globe for a leader who can rehabilitate a failed system. I argue that this practice of importing ‘expert leaders’ to run the show will result in more of the same and will do nothing to repair an already damaged sector.

These ‘modern leaders’ are schooled in Harvard’s Business School’s adaptation of the scientific paradigm of the sixties that explained the whole by examining the parts: reductionism. In fields like physics and engineering this was a successful technique. Reduce the structure down to its independent parts and when reassembled it will return to its initial state. Harvard now offers an almost equally deified course on leadership underpinned by the same attitude.

When this reductionist approach is applied to bureaucracy, and I use education as my example, it is effective in understanding the different internal departments, the silos that populate all large organisations. But in fields like biology and social sciences the final expression of the whole is not the sum of the properties of the parts. The combination of parts blends to allow separate properties to emerge.

The property of emergence was first hinted at by John Stuart Mills in the mid 19th Century in his book ‘Systems of Logic’ where he discussed how the properties of chemical compounds did not relate to the properties of their constituent elements. The archetypical example that illustrates this difference is water. We know that water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen and we really understand the properties of both elements. Knowing this does not explain the wetness of water, neither oxygen nor hydrogen have anything in their properties that would predict this!

Science has turned to the study of emergence to better understand that the properties of the parts need not forecast the properties of the whole. Currently, studies in leadership focus on the analysis of parts and implements improvements at this level in the belief that the end product will reflect each improvement, this is clearly not the case.

Of course, the complexity of modern bureaucracies grew over time. Early education consisted of a teacher in a hall who taught the local kids. As the population grew in size so did the schools’ need of support from outside. The result was a public service which understood their role in supporting the school. This bottom-up design ensured that every developing service focused on the school’s needs.

The case I make against the top-down approach provided by consultants and specialist leaders is difficult to prosecute. The actual courses the department runs all claim to be grounded in the latest research and they can point to improvements in whatever they are tasked to do. A drive for improvement is appropriate and within each silo there is legitimate success. But I will argue that this achievement within the silo has a detrimental effect on schools and any research of the current effectiveness of individual schools will confirm this. The actuality in the system is that instead of the silos serving the schools the schools serve the goals of the silos thus taking their focus off the student’s needs!

Leadership is important but it’s the type of leadership that counts. If you research the qualities of modern leaders you will get a trove of motherhood statements, vision, integrity, emotional intelligence, collaboration, the list goes on. What I have yet to discover in any course description is experience in the field that is to be led!

When you google leadership, it’s not long before the name Winston Churchill comes up; he is often the number one pick. But Churchill was an emergent leader, he immersed himself in wars beginning at the Royal Military College, now Sandhurst. He served in India and reported on the Cuban war of independence and the Boer war. When WWI erupted he worked in the Royal navy where his single mindedness had him removed so he promptly joined the Royal Scots and fought in France. After that war he became the Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air simultaneously. He had experience! It is no surprise that he excelled in wartime as he understood its complexity. However, his success was limited and he was voted out at the first post war election unable to deal with the peacetime complexity of government.

In the past, all forms of bureaucracy found their leaders from the employees that worked for their discipline. Those who excelled were promoted to a position where they took their acquired skills from the ground level and added to them at the next level. The result was those who had the aptitude and the experience became the leader. They emerged from the work force knowing, not only the function of each division but also how these divisions work in combination. They were there to serve in our case the individual schools.

I have no illusion about the powerful influence of the leadership movement and their reliance on consultancies. Regrettably it is this continuous manifestation of top-down solutions devised by those who have no understanding of the power of emergence. I think, like science we really do need to look at the evidence of the whole system and the effectiveness of those who understand what they are to lead. It’s time to look within the service for those leaders who will emerge!

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