Private Schooling for the Poor

July 15, 2010

I recently attended a talk by James Tooley on the subject of providing private school education in the poorest parts of the world.  My initial inclination, along with most other education policymakers, is to consider that private sector education is for the middle class and elites who can afford it, leaving those with lower incomes to the free education of the public system.  What James Tooley discovered was something completely different; that private schools operate and operate well in the poorest regions of the world.  His work over the past 10 years has been likened to a global detective story as he searches for these hitherto hidden schools.

James Tooley has found low-fee private schools in slum communities in India (Hyderabad), Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and China.  In most cases, a significant proportion of the student population was enrolled in these schools, many of which were not recognized by their education departments.  In many cases, private school enrolments were increasing due to parent dissatisfaction with the public system.

James has performed tests on the school children and found that the students in the private  schools were performing better, even though teachers in the public systems could be getting paid double or up to 5 times more than those in the private schools.  The main reasons for the differences were the lack of accountability in public schools, absenteeism of teachers and poor teaching standards.  Teachers in private schools often came from the local community whereas public school teachers may feel aggrieved at being moved to a school in a poor area.

This work is incredibly important for meeting Millennium Development goals which may be under-reported if many students are actually attending schools that are off the radar for statisticians.  It’s also important for encouraging improvements in the public system by providing good competition for student places.  The key point he found is that the poorest of the poor are willing to fork out a small amount of money each day for their children’s education if they see it as having benefit beyond that of a free public education.

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Senate Independence and Government Control of Information

August 9, 2009

A great little quote from a report by Harry Evans who has been Clerk of the Australian Senate for at least the last 20 years. Now that is what I call experience!

More than ever before, independence in the legislature depends on the ability to obtain information that governments would rather conceal. Knowledge has always been power, but the management of information has become the key to government. The executive wants the public to receive only the information favourable to it, and strives to manage the release and the presentation of unfavourable information, and to keep much secret. A functioning legislature is essentially an instrument for breaking down that information management in the interest of the public’s ability to judge governments. It is in this role, however imperfectly, that the Senate, with its committee system and its culture of independence, has performed.

I have always appreciated the Upper House in Australia as a legislature of review or as Don Chipp said “to keep the bastards honest”.  As Australia has a very strong executive government that controls the votes of its backbenchers, this is even more important. The role of parliamentary clerks should not be underestimated as they provide senators with assistance and advice in a professional and apolitical manner in the interests of parliamentary oversight and transparency. These checks and balances strengthen the honesty of governance by asking the “inappropriate questions” that the government may wish to not be raised.

In places like Dubai where I currently reside, there is no bicameral system of government or a form of Westminster system.  The checks and balances cannot come from a Senate-type equivalent which raises the profile of both the media and the public service to promote transparency and provide information to the public so that there is greater awareness of local topics of interest.


Case Study on the Need for Regulation

July 5, 2009

I’ve been following the discussion in Melbourne over the last few years with the rise of McMansion suburbs featuring large household buildings.  Being the owner of a fairly modest 14,500 square foot home, I found it difficult to understand why it was necessary to have 4 bathrooms in a house for only a couple of people.  During some futures workshops, one issue that kept reappearing was a potential backlash from people who have these places but not the funds to afford energy costs in heating and cooling as well as limited access to available public transport.  A related issue was the forecast of a relative increase in upgrading and retro-fitting existing households over building new ones.

And so it was interesting to see this release from the American Institute of Architects showing that there is a renewed interest in smaller house sizes and upgrading existing homes to make more use of the available area.  Partly this is due to belt-tightening by residents but also an enhanced interest in environmental issues and reducing energy costs.

This raises the issue of the need for regulation, especiallyin the good times, and the potential failings of letting market forces rule alone.  In this case, having regulations that required households to improve their energy efficiency preceded the demand of residents for these measures.  Of course, this also needs to be balanced with the removal of older regulations that are at odds with community sentiment.


Cost overruns on rail budgets due to knowledge loss?

June 13, 2009

Article in today’s The Age from Melbourne highlights the exorbitant cost of Melbourne’s first heavy rail extensions for the past 70 years.  Interestingly, one paragraph notes that part of this cost increase could be due to the loss of knowledge caused by the lack of capital expenditure on railways for the past 20 years.

Dube says the Department of Transport has effectively not planned or built any new rail services since the late-1980s when the City Loop was completed. This means there is no expertise in accurately costing an extension to the passenger rail system. Furthermore, the costs of building heavy rail have skyrocketed — far more than inflation. “There’s been very little work done in the railways (since the mid-1980s) … so for 15 years there’s been a hiatus of capital expenditure in the railways and because of that vacuum, the only knowledge people had of what things cost was anchored in the 1970s and ’80s.

This reminds me of another incident described by Patrick Lambe at a workshop in Dubai this week where the discussion moved to how organisations lose knowledge if they do not continue to exercise the knowledge in the people.  You can have lots of wonderful documentation that lists how to do things but that it is still important to have the knowledge of the people who wrote those documents to describe the context and translate that knowledge into meaningful action.  In this case, Patrick was describing the situation of NASA when they were needing to rediscover their knowledge of large booster rockets that can propel material outside the solar system.

For the situation of heavy rail in Melbourne, it clearly portrays the disproportionate investments over the past 30 years in the road network as compared to rail networks.  Part of the exorbitant cost estimate may be due to the need to rebuild much of this knowledge lost over the past few decades.


Bush-whacking National Records

January 6, 2009

It’s that time again in the US with the countdown to a new President.  Edgar had posted an article on it and listening to Radio National this morning, there was a great discussion with a US archivist on the legislation requiring outgoing presidents and vice presidents to transfer their records to the National Archives.  Many of these records are in electronic form, particularly in the form of emails which makes their capture difficult as all records managers would know.

These records are incredibly important for future historians and scholars to look back at how policy was made, the reasoning behind judgements and the internal and stakeholder processes which occurred.  This is critical not just for identifying any errors that occurred, but also to help future policymakers and people in power to not repeat the mistakes of the past.  This is especially true for the Bush/Cheney period which has had more than its fair share of troubles.

Based on this article, there are legal and technical difficulties being encountered in recovering these records.  The technical ones are part and parcel of electronic mail systems, especially when trying to recover historical records, let alone the issues surrounding longevity and metadata capture as new email systems are developed.  A far greater proportion of the records would be electronic, due to its ease and simplicity of use.  But as things becoming simpler to use, they also are often harder for records managers and archivists.  It is often easier for a sender or a recipient of an email record to delete it after sending to remove that record from the mailbox.  It appears that previous presidents (and the current one) have not been fully forthcoming with their public records obligations with various lawsuits having occurred to ensure that the records get preserved.

The current Vice President has been particularly less forthcoming, attempting to limit the range of emails that are required to be preserved and shielding them from his personal emails.  Much of the reasoning and thinking behind the policy decisions that have occurred from past Presidents and Prime Ministers has emerged from their personal diaries and hence the personal records of people in high office should be preserved.  Note that these are shielded from publication for many years through legislation.

All this is somewhat bemusing given this recent New York Times article which states that Vice President Cheney believes that “historians would ultimately look favorably on the Bush administration’s efforts to keep the nation safe.”  How could historians properly do this when they have an abridged version of history preserved in the archives?


The Bursting of the Irish Miracle

January 5, 2009

A few years back, I took my family over to Ireland for my brother-in-law’s wedding. He has recently moved back to Australia with his wife and kids and judging by this article in the New York Times, he sold up his property in Dublin in the nick of time. The luck of the Irish perhaps!

While working in the information economy policy area, we looked at the Irish miracle and admired their stunning economic recovery, blessed with EU funds and a young population.  People flocked there, reversing the historical Irish emigration around the globe.  It was a hub for IT services with generous taxation concessions and a well-educated local population.  The Guiness was pretty good too I heard!

But it appears now that the bubble has well and truly burst.  Unemployment is approaching 10% and housing prices have fallen by nearly 50%. Like the UK, many expats are heading home as the economy shrinks and jobs disappear.  Part of the issue it appears is the rapid increase in housing’s share of the economy (from 5% to 14%) as demand for housing increased.  The voices that asked the government to try and dampen demand were not heeded as the good times rolled.  Unlike the US situation where banks faltered with their lax lending practices to individuals, Ireland’s banks faltered through their lending to property developers.

I keep wondering if these financial problems will occur to this extent in Australia.  We have seemed to be spared the major banking errors through our better regulatory practices.  We do not have a large number of expats who will go home if the going gets tough (Australia is their home now). We are more of a lag economy so the effects of the US economy will take time to filter through the Chinese economy and then to our economy so we may not have seen the worst of it here as yet.  However, we do have particular areas that will be more affected by others, where house prices have increased disproportionately and where people may be less inclined to live in a future of high fuel costs (today’s low reduced petrol prices will not continue for long) and changing economy – more on that in a blog post for another day.


US Defence Strategies

December 22, 2008

Good article by Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, in the Foreign Review on the balanced approach of the US National Defence Strategy.  This balance lies in three areas

  • prevailing in current conflicts while preparing for other contingencies
  • maintaining the existing conventional and strategic technological edge while institutionalising capabilities in counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance, and
  • retaining successful cultural traits while shedding those that hamper doing what needs to be done

Part of the biggest difficulty in defence is the long lead times in procurement, not just for large items like the next fighter aircraft but also for armaments (the things that go bang) so that they go bang when they are meant to go bang.  This requires testing under the various climatic conditions – what might work in an Iraqi summer may act very differently in an Afghani winter.

Gates states quite eloquently:

The Department of Defence’s conventional modernisation programs seek a 99% solution over a period of years.  Stability and counterinsurgency missions require 75% solutions over a period of months.  The challenge is whether these two different paradigms can be made to coexist in the US military’s mindset and bureaucracy…  The issue then becomes how to build … innovative thinking and flexibility into the rigid procurement processes at home.  The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive the procurement, rather than the other way around.

This challenge is not confined to the US military but applies across the public sector.  How do you balance long-term infrastructure development with the need for action and funding that will have impact in the short-term and on-the-ground.  The short-term actions are often cheaper, more sustainable and context-sensitive.  They provide options for undertaking safe-fail experiments to see what works.

Finally, some other quotes:

I have learned many things in my 42 years of service in the national security arena.  Two of the most important are an appreciation of limits and a sense of humility… But not every outrage, every act of aggression or every crisis can or should elicit a US military response.

As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”