A Handbook for Creative Disruption of the Public Sector — Yikes!

Here is a handbook, Public Sector, Disrupted: How Disruptive Innovation Can Help Government Achieve More for Less, for transformation of the public sector—including public schools—via creative disruption.  While it says it is published by Deloitte University Press, it is really just a report from Deloitte Development LLC, the business consultant.

Authored by William Eggers and published in 2013, it examines five cases in which Eggers believes creative disruption will break “seemingly immutable trade-offs” in the public sector where “costs and prices generally rise over time”:

  • criminal justice via electronic monitoring;
  • defense via unmanned aerial vehicles (drones);
  • K-12 education via the “personalized learning experience” of on-line classes;
  • higher education again via on-line learning; and
  • the collection and analysis of intelligence via open source data analytics.

According to Eggers,”Disruptive innovation is about finding new business models that allow you to break traditional trade-offs.” In education, “The trade-off schools have faced is between the kind of standardized teaching that occurs in most public-school classrooms and the more personalized instruction a student might receive from a tutor or at an elite prep school… The trade-off, however, is that such reforms typically are quite expensive.  Online learning, or a blended learning environment of digital learning and traditional instruction, may be capable of breaking this trade-off.  How?  By personalizing the learning experience according to individual student learning styles and pace, and doing so without increasing the number of teachers.”  Not quite the same definition of personalization as the elite prep school?  Which classroom behaviors is Eggers collectively dismissing as “the kind of standardized teaching that occurs in most public-school classrooms”?  No matter.  Stay focused on how to disrupt.

Models of disruption, according to Eggers, “typically combine a disruptive idea with a technology that can propel the innovation forward, into ever-greater capabilities.”  Here are some instructions and some caveats that will help with the process.  The first requirement is “conceiving of the public sector as a series of markets.” After all, if we limit our thinking (in K-12 public education) to how it’s done in traditional public schools, “innovations in the broader commercial sector… will often be overlooked.”  And remember that “the disruptive approach will likely start off worse than the current dominant model (but then improve over time).”  Presumably this caveat ought to help deflect criticism in the early years when things are not going very well for the children who are being experimented on.  Society must wait for a few years, sacrifice the education of some children while the experiment is being launched, and watch for improvement.

Eggers quotes Luke Williams, author of Disrupt, who urges the disruptive innovator to explore “the dominant cliches in the area in question and then invert or deny them… To see how this might work, let’s return to the education example.  It is typically assumed that public schooling requires: in-person teachers, classrooms, textbooks, school facilities, cafeterias, transportation.  A disruptive hypothesis might ask: ‘What would happen if we tried to educate children without any of these elements?’  What might a different model look like?  The answer is that it might look pretty similar to the virtual charter schools now operating in 30 states and educating nearly 250,000 students across the United States.”  Ah… a recipe for K12 Inc., the for-profit with the notoriously high dropout rate—the personalized experience of having your child sit at a computer in your basement.

If one intends to disrupt the public sector, privatization is extremely helpful, because according to Eggers, “The disruptor cannot focus on disrupting the core mission area initially because at the beginning a disruptive solution usually cannot compete with the incumbent solution”—in the case of education the public school system. Getting a whole charter sector up and running might be considered a good first step.  “Shaping a successful disruptive innovation also typically requires the disruptor to have autonomy from the parent organization, the mainstream market it will disrupt, and the incumbents who dominate the market.  Disruptions threaten existing practices… This means that disruptive innovations impacting the public sector will typically originate outside of large government organizations.”  After all, the “job of government officials” is to kill innovation “through regulation or similar means.”

However, once the disruption has been launched, “Government has an array of tools and channels that can be used to foster the growth of the disruptive technologies.” These include “legislation, budget maneuvers, and other special funding tools,” that can be used to “propel a disruptive innovation upwards.  By removing subsidies, contracts, and other advantages that allow incumbents to dominate a market space, governments can level the playing field to allow disruptive innovation to gain ground.”  This is the role, of course, of pro-business groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that develop model laws (to be introduced in a range of state legislatures) that protect various market reforms and various forms of privatization.

Eggers concludes his report by situating the need for creative disruption in our “new normal” season of budget austerity in federal and state governments.  “To get more for less requires doing things differently.  This entails new business models, new entrants, new technologies, and the willingness to reduce or phase out existing practices…. what is needed are innovations that break traditional trade-offs, particularly that between price and performance.”  Eggers neither challenges today’s diminishing public sector budgets—the result of rampant tax cutting—nor imagines disrupting them with tax increases.

Eggers pictures learning as information being poured into the heads of children and imagines a teacher—or computer as teacher substitute—projecting finite learning bites at the children sitting in a classroom or before a computer screen.  It is a one-way education model that removes the human connection between children and teachers and children and their peers. Nor does Eggers’ learning model consider the philosophical debate about the role of culture or social location as part of knowledge.  Neither does he consider learning theory that posits knowledge as something constructed and influenced by the human interaction between teacher and student.

What is described here is a technology-driven dystopia. In Eggers’ theory of learning there is neither joy, nor imagination, nor creativity (despite the term ‘creative disruption’).   Rocketship, a charter school company that has been trying out such a model, is currently in retrenchment because its blended learning model appears not to be working well.  Of course perhaps its owners ought to take Eggers’ advice which protects against such appearance of failure: “the disruptive approach will likely start off worse than the current dominant model (but then improve over time).”

3 thoughts on “A Handbook for Creative Disruption of the Public Sector — Yikes!

  1. Jan, Your recent articles have been enlightening. Good Work! Keep on Blogging!   Ron Hooker   This summer is flying by. .

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