About us

Leading international thinktank and political network


Register for all the latest updates in our regular newsletter

Home Events Events

Public services working group - New York

  • Date(s)
    2 December 2004
  • Location
    New York

The last meeting of the Public Services working group was held in New York on the 2nd and 3rd of December 2004, in cooperation with the Children’s Aid Society and Edison Schools.

After previous discussions in London (January 2004), then at the annual Policy Network Spring Retreat (March 2004) and in Madrid (June 2004), the public services working group expanded the debates beyond the areas of choice, diversity and equity.

The main goal of the meeting in New York was to share European and American experiences on turning around failing institutions in the public sector. The discussion was focused on the policy tools progressives can mobilise to enhance the performance of public institutions and the role of public services for the social and economic development of local communities.

Though policy specifics obviously differ from country to country, participants made it clear they are deeply concerned that – in many cases – public institutions in the different countries represented are failing the very citizens they are meant to serve and thus have become at least deteriorating and in some cases, even failing institutions.

Participants discussed how one takes an existing dysfunctional public system and changes it so that it begins to function again. In some ways, they ventured, the nature of public service organisations itself leads to a certain level of dysfunction, and therefore it may be time to change the very fabric of our institutions.

In the first session participants reflected around the question of whether organisations –or some of their parts- need to be closed down in order to start all over again. Ellen Schall, Dean of the Wagner School of Public Policy at New York University and former head of public agency in New York outlined some of the steps that helped turn the group around when it was on the verge of collapse.

Ellen Schall’s experience shown that leadership at the institutions themselves is fundamental to unleash transformation. In that sense, hiring processes are essential for bringing new good leaders for public services. The way leaders are chosen as well as how to ensure their permanence on the long-term are the most important issues to be addressed.

It is often the case that leaders of public services lack in many aspects of ownership of day-to-day management. For instance, school leaders have neither carrot (in terms of incentive pay) nor stick (the ability to fire) In order to get the best out of staff members. Great leaders need to be free to take risks where they see a need, to own hiring and firing decisions, and try creative solutions. Nonetheless, in order to innovate, leaders not only need a greater a degree of autonomy and power, but also they ought to be prepared to deal with the external factors shaping the context where they will be operating.

During the second session, participants look at how personnel can play a role on turning institutions around. Critically, the ideas emerging on that regard were focused on how to develop a “carrot and stick approach” in the face of the rigid employment structures that are traditionally embedded in public services institutions. While the system needs to reward merit effectively and implement training and professional development programs, all these should be also complemented with greater accountability of professionals when they performance is not up to minimum standards.

The issue of how trade unions could positively participate in this sort of reforms, which to great extent would need hiring and firing to become more dynamic, was also analysed. At the time to trigger transformation in public services, labour unions are seen by some as an enormous impediment. Others, however, think the dialogue between labour and management is just simply shut down and needs to be reopened.  Introducing the question of what kind of labour agreements can be productive, for example, for teaching and learning in the area of education, might be a way to reopen such dialogue.

The third session examined the role new providers play turning institutions around. Will Cavendish, who works at the British Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, laid out a brief history of institutional change in the area of education since the arrival of the New Labour government in 1997. Will Cavendish stressed the importance of creating new providers within the broader strategy of improvement for the British educational system. In that regard, academies and new schools are created for failing schools. Similarly, while the market is freed, corporations also take over –outsourcing- control over staffing, eventually, granting greater investment in the system.

By and large, the introduction of choice through new providers was seen as key to promote positive institutional change. However, more choice also raised doubts among some participants. Particularly, some of them pointed out potential problems of equality and segregation that choice could generate. On the contrary, other participants emphasised the positive role that choice plays at the time to motivate workers and, above all, empower service users.

In the last session the issues surrounding the politics of change were analysed. The presentations of two leading politicians, Joel Klein, New York City Chancellor for Education, and Morgan Johansson, Swedish Minister for health and social services, gave participants a rare opportunity to compare very different political experiences in the area of education reform.

Current school reform in New York City stands out by the creation of an “autonomy zone”, where new small schools and charter schools are introduced, following a 50/50 model (50% for profit and 50% non-for profit). These new providers come to replace old failing schools, which are being currently shutdown. Within the autonomy zone, principals are free to make decisions that matter, while at the same time, schools are hold accountable for pupils academic performance. Thus, schools in the “autonomy zone” can opt out on many of the rules guiding the rest of the system and, in exchange, they are subjected to strict performance targets.

School reform in New York has encountered resistance from part of the teacher’s unions, for instance, at the time to increase pay for principals and teachers to encourage them to work in failing schools, an initiative which was finally rejected by the unions. Joel Klein believes that as long as incentives are built around life tenure/seniority any attempts to make changes will bring about resistance from the unions. These sort of structural impediments limit the degree of autonomy that school principals may ever be able to achieve.

School reform in Sweden took place fifteen years ago under the leadership as minister of education of Goran Persson, current Swedish Prime Minister. Persson implemented the biggest change in the educational system by bringing a centralised system to the municipality level. The national curriculum was maintained, though much less detailed. Instead, it was created a smaller national supervision commission to oversee and monitor schools performance.

Morgan Johansson thinks that in the school debate it is a big mistake to consider politicians and policy-makers on the opposite side of parents.  All change has to start on a base level. A bottom-up approach on how to change education should be taken.  The parents, students, and teachers should never be seen as the obstacle of change but as the potential “source of change” and the key actors for success.

Regarding the role of the union on the process of reform, it was stressed that Sweden has the strongest labour unions in the world.  Almost everyone is unionized and, of course, there was resistance to this de-centralization plan. One group, particularly opposed, was the teachers of secondary schools, who saw themselves as in a class of their own. Usually, the tougher the labour market is the more conservative will the labour unions be.

Yet while secondary teachers were against reform, the primary teachers were for it.  The primary teachers saw the benefits of decentralization.  They saw the benefits of integrating primary and secondary schools.  The primary school teacher was always closer to the labour movement.  Unions became agents of change.

Regarding the shutdown of failing public institutions, Morgan Johansson believes that there is no need to shut down an institution. Management by fear is not a strategy that works. “Get the staff to understand that there is something for them in it too. And then combine the reform with a strong program on educating the personnel so that the results do not wash away in a couple of years.”

The ethos of public services organisations was also considered. In that sense, Morgan Johansson also believes that it is incumbent on public service organizations to create an ethos of a public institution. Communities need to be presented with the concept of these institutions in terms of the public good, and the institutions themselves need to force a public conversation.

In sum, the transformation of failing public services institutions was seen as a multidimensional process, which entails changes at different levels. Thus, not only it is important to implement institutional development but also to ensure that leadership at the institutions themselves favours transformation. Similarly, there is need to build sustainability around all the organisational improvements implemented. Thus, the need for combining top-down and bottom-up approaches, while at the same time ensuring sustainability on the long-term, was a central idea all throughout the debate.


Morgan Binswanger is Chief Operating Officer of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
Matthew Browne is Director of Policy Network and Editor of Progressive Politics.
Will Cavendish is Senior Policy Advisor at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.
Philip Coltoff is Chief Executive Officer of the Children’s Aid Society.
John Chubb is Chief Academic Officer of Edison Schools.
Tibor Dessewffy is a sociologist, working at the ELTE Institute of Sociology in Hungary.
Kare Hagen is currently Head of the Social Policy Research program at the Norwegian Research Council.
James Howland is Chief Executive Officer of the Educational Services Group at Edison Schools.
Robert L. Hughes is President of New Visions.
Morgan Johansson is Swedish Minister for Health and Social Services.
Joel Klein is the New York City Chancellor of Education.
Gaynor McCown is the Executive Director of The Teaching Commission.
Eva Moskowitz is member of the council of New York City and Chair of the Education Committee.
Ray Raymond is Political Officer at the British Consulate General in New York.
Amy Rosen is Managing Partner of The Public Private Strategy Group and Member of Amtrak Board of Directors.
Ellen Schall is Dean, and Martin Cherkasky Professor of Health Policy and Management, of NYU Wagner.
Paul Schnabel is General Director of the Social and Cultural Planning Agency of the Netherlands.
Simon Stevens is President of United Health Europe.
Chris Stone is Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Tim Stone is International Chairman, KPMG PPP Advisory Services and founder of KPMG’s Financing Group.
Thomas Toch is director of the National Council on Education and the Economy Policy Forums program and writer-in-residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C.
Juan Torres is the President of Platform Learning.
David Triggs is Principal of Greensward College (UK).
Michiel Van Hulten is Vice Chair of Policy Network and member of the Council of Foundation of the International Baccalaureate Organisation.
Gene Wade is the Chairman and CEO of Platform Learning.
Chris Whittle is Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Edison Schools

Share this page

Search events

Events search form