"The people make the place"

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Photo: Sarah Farhat / World BankThe World Bank is in the middle of restructuring itself into fourteen 'global professional practices.'  One of them will be governance.  At the moment, its orientation and its priorities are still in the melting pot.  

For those of us who are interested in governance and public sector management, inside and outside the Bank, a new book about education is timely.  Education is one of the largest public services everywhere, if not the largest.  Education management, to a fair degree, IS public sector management. And the book has a novelty value, being written not by a sector specialist, but by one of Hollywood’s leading movie directors, taking time off from his day job to write a book about an unlikely passion: not drugs, not gorgeous pouting starlets, but the things that make schools successful. 
The director is M. Night Shyamalan, whose picture credits include the horror movie The Sixth Sense, and the book is I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America's Education Gap.  His message boils down to five factors, which he has distilled from his layman’s reading of the research on education outcomes.  Factors 4 and 5 are specific to education, but 1 to 3 translate readily into more general governance and public sector terms.

Image1.   Teachers: retaining the best teachers (and dealing with ‘roadblock teachers’)
2.   Leaders who operate as coaches for their teachers, not as bureaucrats
3.   Feedback: mandatory, frequent and collaborative feedback on school and teacher performance
4.   School size: small is beautiful
5.   Student time: Students spending more time in class and in school

The non-factors he identifies - the things that DON'T matter, contrary to popular belief - are almost as interesting as the key factors themselves.  They include class size: Shyamalan finds no clear evidence that students do better in smaller classes.  They also include pay: he fails to find evidence to justify making pay, let alone merit pay, one of his key factors.
The normal health warning applies to Shyamalan’s findings, whose findings concern only education, and even then only in the US.  What goes for his fourth factor, school size, in the US, for example, may not apply elsewhere.  In other countries, a school may be small because it is failing, unable to make itself attractive to parents, students and good teachers alike.  Similarly, what goes for class size in the US, where the average student/teacher ratio was 15:1 in 2011, may not apply in developing countries, where classes can be much larger. 
Having said that, what might factors 1 to 3 suggest about public sector performance in general? 
Factor 1, in the light of the imputed irrelevance of class size, means that QUALITY of staff matters more than QUANTITY.  Serving clients well is more important than serving few clients.
Factor 2 means that leadership matters, and in a specific way: leaders and managers who work intensively with staff to raise their performance, not bureaucrats who skulk in their offices and shuffle paper.
Factor 3 means that public agencies, and particularly their staff, need regular feedback on how well they are doing. 
Taken together, the three factors recall the title of one of the most frequently cited articles in the organizational psychology literature: The people make the place.  People - their quality, and how well they are managed – not procedures.  The one procedure, or system, that definitely matters is the feedback system that acts as a mirror for staff, and for public agencies, to use to improve their performance. 
From one point of view, all that is obvious.  But does it reflect what we have been emphasizing in public sector management?  Compare the people focus of Shyamalan’s factors with the procedures focus of the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) Indicators.  Have we got the balance right between the people – the human factor in governance – and the procedures and systems? 
You can see Shyamalan talking about his new book here.  You can read a review of his book here.  And those of you in DC can see him talking about it in the flesh at the great Politics and Prose bookstore on Connecticut Avenue this Wednesday evening (November 6 2013) at 7 p.m.
Who will do for the developing country public sector what Shyamalan has just done for US schools?  Can we persuade Steven Spielberg to take an interest?


Willy McCourt

Senior public Sector Specialist

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