Schools for Government

As this is my first contribution for HuffPost UK, I thought it might be appropriate to do a transatlantic comparison in my chosen field -- what is variously called public affairs (in the USA), public policy, public administration (by oldies like me) and public management.

So here is a paradox: Americans hate government, Brits love it (I exaggerate for effect). But Americans have dozens upon dozens of Schools of Public Affairs/ Administration/ Policy/ Management and we in the UK have virtually zilch. How come?

Americans may hate government, but they take it seriously. They invested huge amounts of time and energy of the finest minds working out how government should be constructed and wrote it all down in Constitution, supported by masses of written discussions (The Federalist Papers) all of which remain living, used, documents more than two centuries later.

We Brits muddled through the 19th and 20th centuries with an unwritten 'constitution', an amateur civil service, and part-time politicians who saw Parliament more as a club than a legislature and seat of government. In America they pay their congressmen and women properly and ban them from excessive external earnings, in Britain our parliamentarians can earn ten times their salary from external sources and no-one bats an eyelid (but claim for a duck pond and you're in trouble).

And just as the Americans take government seriously (but dislike it), and we do not (but tolerate it, even have a sneaking soft spot for it), so for educating those who would work in it and researching how it works best. They do, we don't, at least nowhere near as much.

NASPAA (the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration) in the USA has, last time I looked, about 250 affiliated schools. In the UK you could count the equivalent schools on the fingers of one hand. Virtually every US University has one, under 5% of UK universities have anything vaguely resembling such schools. There are about 250 graduate MPA programs there, about 15 here. Ever heard of the Kennedy School -- most politically literate people have, but where is the equivalent in Britain.

Apart from the shockingly lax attitude this displays to the serious matter of governing ourselves, this absence is a major missed opportunity. Britain, despite our amateurish ways, has a tremendous reputation for doing 'public administration' well, and more recently for being a beacon of change and innovation in Government over then past three decades. I know because I spend a fair bit of time visiting foreign places that are fascinated by what we are up to and trying, usually unsuccessfully, to prick at least a few of their wilder illusions. A Chinese official put it neatly when he told me in Beijing: "we like to send our people to America to learn about business, because they are good at that. But we would like to send them to Britain to learn about public administration." Not much chance of that with only 15 Universities running MPA programs is there? What we need, apparently, is an "export led recovery". So why are we not exporting what lots of people seem to think we have?

So here am I working in a Business School. Don't get me wrong, it is a good business school and there's lots to learn from business that is useful for government. But it's still a business school, not a school for government. Britain needs to start taking government -- understanding better how it works and how to improve it, educating people to run it -- as seriously as our American cousins. After all we spend more on it, we like it more (especially bits like the NHS), so why are we so bad at learning how to improve it?