Late last week I had my first blog post appear on the Huffington Post, the world's most popular blog (though it's Ed section is significantly weaker than its celeb news, I imagine).
It was a riff on a piece I'd previously written up here, pointing out that if ever there was a point in public service spending history to take the time out to consider alternative solutions to the problems we face, it was now.
A forensic focus on growth, with a population that can break boundaries and innovate, does not come from harnessing traditional values of "cut back, focus on getting to the month's end intact". It comes from innovative policy-making first and foremost, with innovation flowing from the rest of us accordingly:
If I said that the worst solutions for the challenges you're facing might just be the best way out of a tight spot, would you believe me? If I suggested that one terrible idea could save a U.S. school district up to $25 million a year -- cutting an education budget and maybe even increasing teacher numbers -- would you be more interested?
As nations around the world seek to save money in their education budgets -- the U.K. seems an exception to the rule with its $8 billion increase in education, it's only budget increase at all -- we might wonder whether creative flair in decision making might be more effective at saving money than the budget holder's red pen.
When you ask a room of teachers or policymakers to come up with their "best" solutions to a problem you often tend to get great ideas, but not always the best ones. They can be contrived versions of management speak and almost always involve some self-censorship from the team: people don't offer anything up unless they feel, explicitly or subconsciously, that it will get buy-in from the rest of the committee or that favored butcher of creativity, the stakeholders. People's "best ideas" for saving money generally involve generous doses of "chop this" and "cut back on that".
At a time when education budgets have never been smaller, and are only going to get even more so, the kind of thinking that defaults to the "old ways" of doing things -- expensive committees, organizations, meetings, 'experts' -- just won't cut it any more. Stanford's Tina Seelig suggested another route to me that has already saved education departments millions this month.
Ask people for their "worst" solutions to a problem and people tend not to hold back at all -- laughs are had and the terrible ideas flow. And while the initial suggestions might feel stupid, pointless or ridiculous to the originating team members, these awful ideas can take on a spectacular new lease of life in the hands of another, unrelated group.
By insisting on a "yes and" approach, rather than a "yes but" approach, a fresh set of eyes can turn these "worst" ideas into the ones that will save money, improve service or make people happier in the workplace.
I've tried this approach on several senior education groups now from Bahrain to the Scottish Borders, each time with huge success. With one school district, seeking creative ways to maintain the quality of their services for millions of pounds less, the results were simply brilliant.
- Reduce cleaning costs by scrapping school cleaners. Yes and... we'll get the students to clean the two square meters around the area in which they are standing at 2 p.m. every day.
- Reduce the cost of maintaining school grounds by no longer using Council environmental services. Yes and... we'll get students to swap the neat lawns for some self-grown fruits and vegetables, leading to cheaper, better and fresher produce in school meals while also teaching youngsters about crop cycles and basic biology. We could even generate some extra money by selling extra produce to the community, or generate good will by giving it away to those families who occasionally struggle with the bills.
- Reduce the money spent on transporting children to school by stopping taxi runs from remote areas. Yes and... we'll seek out parents to get some regular car sharing started. And we can make a feature of the diverse locations our students live in to create a massive start-of-term expedition to explore the area on foot, and see how close and how far students live from school.
- Improve the quality of service provision by forming a committee. Yes, a committee made up of everyone in the community -- you can call in to local radio and share who you think has made the biggest improvement in your local services (the refuse collector who always replaces the lid on your bin and cleans up rubbish, for example), but the result is given anonymously. That way, everyone in the Council thinks it might be them and adjusts their behavior accordingly.
I don't know the precise figure spent on fruits and vegetables, cleaning and gardening in U.K. schools, but these ideas, applied nationally, could have a much more positive effect on what and how students learn, as well as saving at least a few million.
I'll leave you with a simple one you could get your local school to give up on right now: window cleaning alone is $50,000 a year in one English borough, which nationally would lead to a saving of at least £25 million a year.
If the U.S. did away with schools window cleaning for a year, and instead the community pulled in around it, how many millions could we save?
An excellent point in the Huff Post comments was that, in some 40 years of being a student in or a teacher at high schools in the US, the commenter had never seen a window cleaner. That's the point. It's a hidden expense few of us spot. They're there, every morning when I walk to the train at 6am en route to Newcastle, England. I imagine there there, too, in the wee small hours, making sure your $100m school buildings made of glass and steel reflect the natural light they were designed to. ;-)