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Article Article June 8th, 2015

Leadership lessons from New York: an interview with Joel Klein

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Most people in government manage against politics, and not performance

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We may be at a point where politicians will hear voters that they want people to work together

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Government is now in the deliverology business

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“On the first morning at the New York education department, I got to talking with an assistant who was transitioning from the prior administration to mine,” recalls Joel Klein. “As I was talking to her a phone was blinking red and I said to her that perhaps she should take that phone call. And she replied, ‘don't worry about that it's just an angry parent - I'll leave her on hold and eventually she will go away'. This kind of attitude happens when a system doesn't reflect performance, but reflects politics.”

It's quite an anecdote, and one that serves as an accurate metaphor for the scale of the challenge that was facing Klein as he geared up to serve as New York's top education official. The city had just elected Mike Bloomberg as mayor and was poised to embark on a new era and Klein strongly believed that education, too, was ripe for reform. “When I came to the Department of Education the thing that struck me was that most people's principal cultural mindset was ‘we don't want to get in trouble' or ‘we don't want to cause a story in the local newspaper',” he recalls. “They were worried that if this happens then people would come and push back against us and their job security could be imperilled. So, people were terribly risk-averse and they weren't thinking about performance.”

School scores

Immediately before Klein began his role, the city had transferred full control of the school system to the mayor, and Klein sought to extract maximum leverage from these new powers. But it was by no means straightforward. “I had previously worked at the Justice Department for five years and so I had some operational sense about how to move a very complex government bureaucracy forward with new policies and push them through,” he says. “Having said that, was it easy? Nothing about transforming an organisation like the public schools system is going to be easy. There are enormous anchors for the status quo and these are strongly defended by people who have an interest in that status quo.”

He wasted little time in getting down to work. Over the next eight years, reforms echoed across the city's five boroughs - from closing down and reorganising schools to enabling the creation of more than 100 charter schools and introducing a new system of performance accountability. “One of the great challenges for me, and what I always say to people, is trying to assess when to put your foot on the gas and when you put it on the brake,” he reflects. “This is what the art of leadership to some degree is - trying to figure out how far you can push before you drive the car off the cliff.”

A key factor for Klein was his knowledge that he had the backing of his boss. “I never would have taken the job if Bloomberg hadn't gotten mayoral control,” he says. “Knowing that he was mayor and knowing that he would back me meant that I knew I had degrees of freedom. These wouldn't be unlimited - it wouldn't mean that the city council or state legislature or the United Federation of Teachers would let me do my work unimpeded - but there was a different degree of opportunity when you had the type of alignment me and Bloomberg had, and you don't have to go to a board for regular decision-making sessions. This was a powerful force in what I think we were able to accomplish.”

And accomplish he did. Rising test scores, far higher graduation rates, strong performance from new small high schools and a strong record of achievement from the charter schools sector are just a few examples. To do so, however, Klein, had to face down much resistance. How did he get the job done? A key element was a strong focus on delivery - or ‘deliverology', to use the phrase coined by the Centre for Public Impact's co-chairman, Sir Michael Barber.

“The trouble with most governments is that there is no deliverology,” says Klein. “Deliverology is very important and is a big shift in the way people think about government. This seems to be a quintessential, powerful change. Whether you're for the policies I would support or not, one of the things the mayor would look at is the impact of these policies as they are implemented. What will be the impact on literacy and numeracy scores, graduation rates, dropout rates, etc - and then manage against them. This is a fundamental shift of mindset. Government is now in the deliverology business. How long is the waiting time at a hospital? How long before emergency services show up at someone's house or at a fire? All these things are quantifiable and you manage against them. Unfortunately most people in government grew up thinking they should manage against politics, and not against performance.”

Brand Bloomberg

Another helpful factor was the shield afforded by Bloomberg's consistent popularity with New Yorkers. “While some of what we did was unpopular at times, the mayor's popularity remained generally high throughout the whole time and this was obviously helpful for us,” admits Klein, who goes on to pay tribute to his overall approach. “What makes Mike tick is that he really cares deeply about policy and its impact on people,” he continues. “He's not a political creature - he had to be political to navigate the world he ascended into - but he wasn't thinking about his next job or his lifetime career in the senate or wherever. What he was thinking about was how to come into New York and change things that are dysfunctional.”

His leadership style also helped produce results, suggests Klein. “He had a lot of the basic principles that many great leaders bring to a job,” he says. “One was a clear vision across a range of things - education, transportation, health - that he was driving and implementing. He came in with these ideas. He didn't want to be mayor because he wanted more attention or publicity or he didn't have anything to do with his life, he wanted to be mayor because he had a real agenda.

“The second thing he was really committed to was bringing in good people to actually implement the agenda and lead the specific areas. And then, politically, some of the issues like banning smoking in public places are inevitably going to cause push-back. If you don't have a leader like Mike who has got your back then change isn't going to happen. These are core basic ingredients that leadership is about. It's not about the core, day-to-day micromanaging. But Mike's style is so conducive and so atypical in some ways of what you see in government, because he did empower his people but he held them accountable too. When mistakes happened he was explicit about his concerns and the need to rectify and not repeat.”

One advantage held by Bloomberg and his mayoral counterparts across the US is that cities tend to be free of the partisan gridlock that has impacted Washington in recent years. “Mayors do have more ability to get things done but it also comes down to necessity,” points out Klein. “Remember, when you're running a municipality in particular, the operational demands - like collecting garbage - are much more day-to-day than in a place like Washington, which is dealing with more macro-policies and other issues. I certainly felt during the Bloomberg years that whatever disagreements we had with policy they had to be quickly worked through and implemented.”

Getting back to governing

In the 1990s Klein served in the White House Counsel's office under President Clinton before being appointed to the Department of Justice, serving as assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division. However, his experiences of Washington go back to the 1970s when he joined the legal team of a not-for-profit legal advocacy organisation representing people with mental disabilities.

“When I started work in DC, the government was large - not as big as today but still quite large - but it functioned much better,” recalls Klein. “I think what has happened is that politics has become much more polarising across the country and, because of the way the electoral maps work, people have pretty secure party-based seats, so what they worry about is an attack from the most extreme elements in their party. The result is you have fewer and fewer centrist people in both parties and the result is more polarised discussion and debate.”

Klein, though, remains hopeful that a more collaborative way of governing may yet return. “Sometimes for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” he says. “I think we may be at a point where the politicians will hear the message from voters that they want people to work together to solve problems, rather than end up in polarised debate. My own instinct is that, even though the two parties are being pulled in different directions, the country itself remains essentially centrist and is not looking for radical transformation but much more for day-to-day problem-solving, and this will essentially drip through to leaders in Washington.”



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  • Class action. Khadijah Abdullah explains how she is spearheading education reform as chief executive of Malaysia's Education and Performance Delivery Unit.

  • Maths mission. South Africa's youth face many challenges but they are benefiting from the efforts of Sharanjeet Shan, executive director of Maths Centre, a Johannesburg based not-for-profit

  • Reading rules. Sir David Bell reflects on a career that has included teaching five-year-olds, inspecting schools, running England's education department and serving as vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.

  • Character counts. Getting more young people into employment comes down to the applicant's character, explains Leila Hoteit

  • Schools of thought. We speak to a selection of university and college leaders from across the US about measuring the impact of higher education

Written by:

Matthew Mercer Senior Editor
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