The trouble with bureacracy

Top of the list in almost every education news report here in the UK at the moment is the large-scale cuts that are being made to the various education ‘quangos’ that were created in the past to serve and support the education system.

The list includes:

  • Becta (The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) which promotes the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning (to be abolished altogether)
  • Training and Development Agency for Schools – responsible for the training and development of the school workforce
  • Young People’s Learning Agency which funds local authorities to commission suitable education and training for 16- to 19-year-olds
  • National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services which oversees professional development of leaders of school, early years settings and children’s services
  • Children’s Workforce Development Council which handles training, qualifications and reform for the children and young people’s workforce
    School Food Trust which is charged with improving quality of food in schools
  • Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the regulatory body for public examinations and publicly funded qualifications including the Early Years Foundation Stage and the National Curriculum (to be abolished altogether)

A common argument put forward for the closing (or downsizing) of these agencies (aside from an economic response) is the notion that they have grown to ‘top-heavy’ and bureaucratic, and no longer provide a good return on investment. This is the problem with any bureaucracy – or any organization for that matter. They generally begin life as ‘lean, mean and very focused’, but over time tend to become inflated at the top level, with increasing amounts of effort going into ensuring that the bureaucracy manages itself. The long-term impact is that the organization ceases to be effective.

When we think about the public sector, this is exacerbated by an unhealthy emphasis on risk-aversion and political correctness, particularly in times of economic constraint. So, practices and procedures are established to minimize or avoid risk – inevitably resulting in a reduced level of service, innovation and leadership from the agency concerned.

It seems that the education system in New Zealand may be living proof of this, judging by a recent snapshot report issued last Friday which found that “excessive red tape, bureaucratic systems and ineffective consultation are hampering government departments.” Of the government departments that were reviewed, the Ministry of Education came bottom of the rankings for overall performance, chief executive performance, and quality of service. The assessment said the Education Ministry was seen as “ineffective and too politically correct”, as it played a “piggy in the middle” role in the introduction of national standards.

The challenge – how do we create an education system that is appropriately resourced, led and well managed – that is also characterised by a high degree of agility, flexibility, innovation and adaptability? Some sort of coordinating agency is required in order to achieve the economies of scale and to lead the ‘big picture’ view that is often missing in localised management. But we must avoid the over-bureaucratisation that ensues if there are insufficient checks and balances along the way.

One thought on “The trouble with bureacracy

  1. There are many great people experienced and passionate about education in the NZ Ministry of Education. This could be incongruous with the need to align with changing government philosophies and mandates from ministers of education. The report notes that “Departments that did well were those that could embrace the policy direction of the government, and adapt to change”. I imagine it is very hard to adapt to change when it may be perceived that the change conflicts with an employee’s core beliefs about education. I suspect this could be why education scored so low. I don’t know how this can be solved as changing the staff in the Ministry of Education each time the Minister or policy changes is unlikely to be an option. It would also be a shame to see people without experience and passion for education developing policy and implementation strategies.

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