Universities and public value

test card
BBC Test Card image.

Higher education’s status as a not-for-profit public service operating in a globally competitive market is unusual. There are not many comparable institutions – and this can make HE’s travails, as it contemplates regulatory change, seem like a lonely struggle.

But HE is not alone. An analogous institution is the BBC. There are affinities in terms of cultural role, independence and longevity. But the most striking is the exposure to competition while pursuing public purposes. This creates a tendency towards managerialism and instrumentalism that can be counter-productive. To keep this tendency in check, and retain public support, the BBC turned to the concept of public value. Universities are now exploring the same avenue, as they try to regain public connection, revealed by the Brexit vote to be threadbare.

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Leading in complexity

busy street

I’m not a great one for introducing theoretical models in my work with clients, however much my practice may be informed by theory. One that I frequently reference, though, is the leader’s framework for decision making devised by David Snowden and Mary Boone. This is the clearest and most usable articulation I know of what it means to lead in complex situations.

Snowden and Boone argue that leaders often come unstuck because they misconstrue the nature of the scenario they are dealing with. Typically, often without realising it, they are informed by an ideology of management that likens organisations to machines. So they fall in with expectations that most problems can be subject to linear solutions of command and control. Unfortunately, they are likely to be putting unreasonable pressure on themselves and, ultimately, setting themselves up for failure.

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Sustaining public service broadcasting worthy of the name

reithFollowing my post earlier this week on the difficulties at the BBC, I have been chastised by a good friend and former colleague for being too harsh on the Corporation. The specific criticism was that my piece offered no evidence that I valued anything in the BBC.

On reflection, the complaint seems justified. As both a consumer and a former employee, I’m happy to record that I find much to cherish in the BBC’s output and modus operandi. Given how besieged staff inside the organisation feel, perhaps I erred in assuming that this was taken as read.  It is because I respect the nobility to which BBC journalism aspires that I am perplexed by its falling from grace.

However, all organisations need critical friends who are prepared to speak difficult truths. What people value in the BBC – or, more precisely, in its purpose of public service broadcasting – will be at risk if it remains sanguine about the existential threat it faces. The purpose of public service broadcasting is not served by trying to equate it with everything the BBC does. Nor by insisting that the activities we value in the BBC need to be undertaken by a single monolithic broadcaster.

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The BBC: judgment suspended

New Broadcasting House, London
New Broadcasting House, London

As a former BBC hand, I wonder whether people inside the BBC appreciate just how out of control it looks to the outside world? The failures at Newsnight over its mistaken (semi-) identification of Lord McAlpine as a paedophile have revealed what should have been unimaginable lapses in basic journalistic protocol. The director-general’s subsequent resignation with a £450,000 pay-off looked like the BBC Trust had lost the plot. And BBC News is running out of seasoned hands as executives keep falling in the line of fire. But the message from the BBC is “steady as she goes.”

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Jimmy Savile and tacit knowledge: what the past can teach us about the present

savile

The Jimmy Savile scandal is a textbook example of wilful blindness. It viscerally underlines the necessity for leaders to  free up tacit knowledge in their organisations.

The BBC is not alone in facing questions about how it allowed a predatory paedophile to conduct a career of child sexual abuse stretching over decades – apparently to the knowledge of colleagues around him. The NHS, the police, sundry care homes and approved schools among others also have to account for apparent failures in their duty of care. But the BBC holds a special responsibility, having provided the platform upon which Savile built his celebrity as a family entertainer and sustained his powerful influence over vulnerable people. Such is (or was) the trust in the BBC that the halo effect it conferred over Savile possibly encouraged others to drop their guard.

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Public value in a commercial space

Primrose Hill
The public valuing the public space at Primrose Hill

In the post-financial crisis business environment companies are under pressure to demonstrate their social purpose as never before.  The concept of “public value” can be of real help in clarifying and communicating that purpose and enhancing corporate reputation.

Last week we learnt that, despite “Project Merlin”, bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises fell short of expectations by some £2bn in the first quarter of this year, only adding to fears that we are set for a sluggish recovery.  This together with the news that the Chief Executives of both Barclays and HSBC have been awarded £9m in pay apiece will have done little to assuage public anger over bankers’ behaviour.    What is so strange in all this is that the banks are apparently oblivious both to the public mood and to what seems to be the makings of an emerging consensus amongst politicians and policy makers that business must urgently rediscover its social purpose.  Suffice it to say that when as luminous a business luminary as Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter argues that capitalism is facing a crisis of legitimacy you know that something is up.

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