What’s stopping shared services in K-12?

Robots, Digital, RPA, Data Analytics, Cloud Services, Block Chain… Sound like the education system in Ontario?  How about the basics then: consolidated back office, lean, shared services…? No? If there appears to be no advancement in the area of education administration in Ontario, then the question is: did anyone ever try?  In order to find out, we need to turn the clock back 20 years and examine where governments have tried to transform and what seems to be blocking the path forward…

Twenty Years Ago: Half-baked

In 1998 the current Ontario Premier and former Minister of Education, Kathleen Wynne was a compatriot of former mayor / activist John Sewell. Their collective leadership of Citizens for Local Democracy was protesting province-wide school board amalgamation (specifically the city of Toronto). They lost the fight to then Premier Mike Harris who ushered in the amalgamation of school boards with the secondary notion that shared services could potentially be the next logical step in cost reduction. However, Studies have since proven that the mega merger(s) not only drove-up municipal costs but that the afterthought of shared services could have been implemented on its own, without amalgamation, and achieve even greater fiscal benefits. Instead, the icing that was better than the cake and the final touch was left on the beaters for a later bake.

Ten Years Later: Hit and Run

More than a decade passes before the concept of shared services or sector consolidation, in any form, is ever raised again. This time, however the Ministry imposes a directive to reform transportation, aimed at regional collaborative buying of school buses and the optimization of school bus routes. The painful implementation of the consortia is left up to the school boards in each of the regions to self-organize. The predictable backlash from local titans of transport was as relentless as it was predictable but the Ministry’s sticks to its bold move that looks promising.

Fifteen Years Later: It’s Lit!

Enter the Drummond Commission Report of 2013 that imposed itself on a reluctant Ontario Ministry of Education by recommending the reduction of duplication and the increased efficiency of services (common consulting code for shared services).

In that same year the Deloitte report, The Case for Shared Services in Ontario’s School Board Sector , put fuel on the pyre of Public Sector complacency by actually laying out the business case for sharing school board back-office functions. The report even claimed that implementation of a shared services model could avoid the disruption of further amalgamation (and, by extension, the inevitable constitutional battle between those set on preserving and those set on eliminating the separate schools system, otherwise known as Catholicity).

Three Years Ago: Bottoms-up but no top-down

The response to the Drummond Report? Nothing very substantive until 2015 when the Ministry publicly encouraged the 72 school boards across Ontario to submit proposals on how they might study or even “collaborate” with their neighboring boards to implement regional shared service models.

Although this is a measurable move towards the 21st century, it has been proven time and time again that in Public Sector Strategy a bottoms-up is nothing without its top-down.

So while the province leaves it up to individual boards to tinker around the edges and implement micro solutions – the clock ticks, money is being left on the table and the heroic administrative investment of school board administrator time is being squandered. Boards continue to pull regional solutions together but there is already sufficient evidence to support the need for a bigger “space-closing move” that must be propelled from the top.

Back on the Bus

Its now time to look back at the Ministry’s own example of Regional School Bus Transportation Consortia . This shared services model has been demonstrating success over the last 10 years despite some collateral damage among the smaller local transportation providers as communities go to war with the Ministry.

And while the school bus example is successful, it is not perfect. Until apocalypse there will remain those efficiency “gaps” that are unique only to Ontario: Catholic and Public School riders are almost never allowed on the same bus at the same time, “hazards” for students within walking distance of their school can sometimes include the temptation of another closer Public school or Catholic school – depending on the stripe of rider. And let’s not forget the gaps created by the avoidance of another mortal sin: having Francophone riders and English riders on the same bus. If that is not enough inefficiency for you: our elected school board trustees (another long-overdue reform) have been known to publicly advocate/interfere on the placement of bus stops; downgrading the benefits of consortium investment in technical experts and advanced software whose sole purpose is to optimize routes based on a number of factors, including rider safety.

A recipe for mega transformation

Overall the transportation model was successful but what is more important to note is that the implementation was only achieved through a Ministry directive to reform transportation and “bonus funding” for boards who complied with the best practice model. The offer that could not be refused and those carrots for consortia were focused on adherence to best practices in school bus procurement and optimized routing as well as the adoption of better safety standards. The vision for this model did not come from years of boards or regions trying to invent it on their own from the bottom-up – it came from the top.

In that regard, Dr. Michael Fullan , arguably the most notable Canadian thinker on education reform, has said many times that whole system transformation requires not only change management and collaboration at all levels but “leadership at all levels”. Those of us mere mortals with even a quantum of experience with the glacial pace of Education Sector transformation would certainly agree on leadership at all levels but the nuance that must be emphasized is order of operations. Top-level leadership must come first so that they can firmly install the goal posts in the firmament toward which, we may then all aspire.

Despite the intention and effort to consolidate and transform 20 years ago that was “laudable” in the recent words of the Frasier Institute, the most important part was left  undone. However, the province deserves some credit for picking up the smoldering torch of transformation in order to light the student transportation fuse and provide a spark to schoolboards experimenting regionally. Those efforts and the studies that were commissioned have given us the recommendations, provided evidence that shared services will deliver benefits, generated a bottoms-up appetite across the sector, delivered the painful lessons learned but is no substitute for top-down. What we need now is leadership with a vision… and a skin like a rhinoceros.