Ruth PuttickComment

Who runs our schools?

Ruth PuttickComment

A business man returns from a trip abroad. He looks at the high school system in his home country and concludes that it is ‘obsolete’, that schools are too big, and not providing the right education to prepare students for the jobs of the future. His answer is to carve up the school system: dividing existing high schools into smaller units, often with two or three schools operating in the same building. Confident about his ideas and solutions, he uses his personal wealth to put his plans into action.

After a few years, the results are not positive. Schools clash over space: who can use the science lab? Who can use the gym? Who is responsible for the cafeteria? Who intervenes if students from the different schools fight?

You might think that this sounds far-fetched. A made up story. That our schools, like our other public services, such as social care, health, or policing, are overseen by elected officials who decide what decisions are taken and how things operate, and they could never simply be at the whim of a single man.

Yet you might be wrong. The example above has happened. It was the result of Bill Gates attempting to improve the USA’s public school system. Although potentially well-meaning, and his donation of $2 billion arguably generous, after disrupting eight per cent of the nation’s public schools he admitted his ideas had not turned out as he had hoped.

You may now be thinking, is this happening here in the UK? Can rich philanthropists fund services and fundamentally change the way they operate? What is happening in the school your child attends? What about your healthcare? Or the social care elderly relatives depend upon? Who decides how services are run? And how do we know if their ideas are working?

The answer to these questions is: we simply do not know.

Little research has been carried out to date to see how philanthropists and their foundations are influencing government decision-making in the UK, or elsewhere around the world beyond the US.

The answer may be negative, like in the example here.

Or the answer may be positive. Donors can provide much-needed resources, help deliver more services, create new partnerships and inject innovative new ideas. Bloomberg Philanthropies, for example, has supported the creation of Innovation Teams in city governments across the US and Europe. In New Orleans, the Innovation Team helped reduce murder rates by 20 per cent in just two years; in Tel Aviv isolation has been reduced and community cohesion enhanced; whilst in Memphis the Innovation Team helped bring 53 per cent of empty shops back into use, reinvigorating the city centre.

We are accustomed to questioning donations to political campaigns, and the news stories that question whether donors are providing ‘cash for access’ or ‘cash for honours’. We also readily debate how services are being delivered, such as by the involvement of charities in agendas like the ‘Big Society’, or the outsourcing of services to private sector providers such as G4S or Serco. Debates rage in the media, academia and elsewhere as to whether this undermines our welfare state, or compromises the democratic process.

Is it now time that we subjected donors and influencers of our public services to the same level of scrutiny?

For this to happen, there needs to be research. Schools of thought from across the social sciences need to come together and start to analyse what is happening and why. This will draw on various disciplines and approaches, from politics, public policy, governance, policy transfer and the third sector. In addition, research is needed to engage philanthropic foundations and policymakers in open dialogue. Governments too need to play their part by publishing data and information on the partnerships they forge and the money and influence they obtain.

Philanthropy has a warm ring to it. It conjures images of charity, doing good, and of benefiting those less deserving. But we know that good intentions do not necessarily lead to good outcomes. We need to understand the ideas being proposed – by donors and others – and the impacts that these are having, so that our public services are as democratic and effective as possible.

I am exploring these ideas further through my PhD research, examining how philanthropic foundations influence government innovation. Contact me to find out more. 

This blog was a finalist in the ESRC Making Sense of Society competition, and was originally published on the ESRC website.