RISK TAKING IN POLITICS – TESCO STYLE
Policy Exchange hosted former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy last week, as I attended my first Westminster event as a new intern at PLMR. As a guest of David Cameron’s favourite think tank the tone of Sir Terry’s talk was unsurprising; advocating the public sector to more closely reflect its private counterpart.
Sir Terry introduced himself as a Liverpool lad and a product of what good public institutions can do for individuals. He spent his early years in Liverpool’s Catholic state education system and then studied at the University of Manchester (when it was UMIST). Although a beneficiary of the state Sir Terry is by no means a fan of it in its current form and the rest of this hour long talk consisted of Sir Terry’s recommendations of what the public sector should be and who should be leading it. Politicians, for example, should be more courageous, take risks and create a vision on our behalf, he said.
He acknowledged that the private sector could learn from the ethos which often governs the public sector and pointed to Tesco as an example of a business which has benefitted from this approach. According to Sir Terry though, the public sector also has a lot more to learn, particularly when it comes to risk taking and competition.
Risk taking is rarely associated with the public sector, possibly as it has too much to lose. The NHS, for example, is not seen as an asset we can afford to gamble with, as indicated by the uproar around Andrew Lansley’s health reforms. Yet Sir Terry’s is an interesting hypothesis. Education is currently undertaking a competitive transformation initiated by Lord Adonis and continued by Michael Gove. The swelling numbers of converter academies and free schools, which have control over their budgets, curriculum and school day have the potential to transform the education provision in the UK. It is a radical strategy with inherent risks and inevitable opposition, yet in this area of the public sector it seems to be paying off. With over half of secondary schools opting for academy status, it seems that the loosening of central control is fostering a wave of bottom up engagement in our schools system.
Whether Sir Terry’s vision of courageous politicians creating a vision on our behalf will ever be realised remains to be seen, but current developments in education suggests that risk taking and politics need not be strangers.