January 06, 2010

Where is education's "Recovery.gov"?

I believe every citizen should be able to track how every one of their dollars, euros or pounds is spent. Nowhere is this desire to know the destination of our tax dollars more heightened than in education, where we can sometimes feel, as teachers and as parents, very little creeps through into our classrooms and professional development.

Obama's administration is leading the way in showing how this could happen soon.

Last year, within days of becoming President of the USA, Barack Obama announced his intention to create a more open, collaborative and participative form of Government. Soon after, as he pushed through his response to the economic crisis, the Recovery Bill, he was keen that this $98.2bn spend was also monitorable by the people paying for it. Thus at the end of last year launched Recovery.com, a portal to keep an eye on how every dollar is spent, where it is spent and what the recipients of it manage to do with it: creating or safeguarding jobs, gaining new contracts for services.

Recovery.gov Example It's not just agency bureaucracy figures, but also user-generated reports from the people and companies who have benefited from grants or investments. Heck, they even make the data available as a KML file or as text so you can have a play with it, too.

But where is Recovery.com/education? Indeed, why does such a detailed tracker not exist outside the period of crisis, for all of our public services?

Education budgets are admittedly, if we believe our politicians, often saved from cuts (just don't tell the guys in California); it's the one area alongside health that voters don't like to see shaved. Yet, in Scotland as elsewhere, 2011 will see a real cut in the amount spent in classrooms, with Local Authorities and individual school head teachers having to make tricky choices, or learn how to save money in the areas where, in the period of boom, inefficiencies had crept in unnoticed.

Therefore, as we head towards an even more "every penny counts" era than before, having meaningful access to education spend data would mean

  • better decision-making;
  • more transparency before those whose money is being spent
  • more transparency before those who are receiving the service.
Many a costly decision in quangos, local authorities and schools would be questioned by those closest to the delivery of the service - today they're often the last to know.

Better still, Recovery.com is not just a pretty-fied spreadsheet of what money headed out according to the agencies - it's a two-way service, allowing recipients of money to demonstrate what they've done with it, show the true effect of investment and grants in their local area. If £4m is spent in my High School annually and I, as a classroom teacher, am being told that my entire professional development allocation for the year will be only £50, then having access to that data would allow me to either understand a savvy management decision or question its validity.

So, would this appeal to school leaders, Local Administrators, Heads of Education, Superintendents? The data's there already, from their petrol expenses to their Xerox accounts. I, for one, would be generous in my time to show them that Flashmeeting and Google Docs could save them... well, I don't (yet) know how much.


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How far back are you willing to go to find a 'period of boom' in Scottish educational administration, Ewan?

I don't think you'll find many local government people who will be able to pinpoint when the last such period occurred. Even when budgets were rising in absolute terms, cuts and savings (not the same thing, of course) were having to be made every single year because of the ever-increasing statutory and regulatory commitments imposed on local government, and especially on education authorities (in all their myriad variations) over the past 15 years since re-organization.

No problem with the recovery.com scenario (athough it would come with a number of, probably, unintended consequences) but let's not pretend that, in the Scottish context, it would be an anti-profligacy measure. Whatever the cynics might think, there is very little fat left in local government these days.

Oh, I agree with you 100% on Local Government finances - they're lean and have been since I worked in them in the noughties, and I know they were leaner when my parents were working in them many years beforehand.

In central Government, though, in Scotland, in Westminster and elsewhere there certainly is fat. I can't even say where it is because there is a genuine lack of transparency still, but it's beginning to appear and, under the next Government in England and Wales, at least, we'll start to see vast quantities more. I wonder whether Scotland will do the same or end up behind in the transparency stakes.

One important point I should really come back to, though, from the original post:

You have extensive understanding of both local and Government financing, how lean and less lean things have been historically and will be in the near future. I have a good knowledge of finances in Local Education and quangos from the very recent past, and a good indication of what's coming.

Most people don't.

Most people wouldn't have a clue how much of their tax bill goes towards schools, let alone how much of that 'schools' money actually goes towards administration, management, IT. On top of that, there's yet more stories to be told about how valuable that spend is (in Recovery.com the story is how many jobs are safeguarded, new contracts gained etc).

Data without the stories would be pointless and open to abuse, for sure.

But no data means those not "in the system", and at that rate quite high up it, are left in the dark.

So actually, the debate about what is and isn't lean or fat is irrelevant. This argument is about letting citizens see for themselves.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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