The DFEE has opened up to outside ideas since Michael Bichard becameits permanent secretary. And the changes won't stop there, reports Chris Johnston.
In the Civil Service scheme of things, Michael Bichard is an outsider, even a "man from Mars", as Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times once described him. So what has the permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) done to earn such a reputation? The answer is that the DFEE's top civil servant is the only permanent secretary not to have risen through the ranks of Whitehall. Before taking up the position in 1996, he was chief executive of the Benefits Agency for five years, a role he also performed at Gloucestershire county and Brent borough councils.
Coming from outside the hallowed halls does have its advantages, though. For a start, Bichard does not have the stiffness of some high-ranking civil servants. But he has been in the game long enough to know how to keep secrets when he wants to.
Bichard's reign has seen the department become a significantly different creature. One characteristic of this change is a willingness to work with external partners on projects, such as the Tomorrow's World Live event that sets up shop at Earl's Court from June 30 to July 4. Visitors will be able to learn how to extract DNA, see how a bionic arm works or design the car of their dreams at the event, which claims to "change and shape the way you think about tomorrow". The venture underlines the DFEE's desire "to be more open, maybe a touch more modern and a bit more accessible", Bichard says.
The department has teamed up with IBM for another venture, the Learning Curve, to create a "classroom of the future" that promises to show how we will learn tomorrow. Bichard views the event as an opportunity to popularise education and learning, and to draw attention to the potential of IT in its future. "It's pretty difficult to look 10 years ahead and not see IT playing an important part in the way in which we learn," Bichard says.
The barriers between education and entertainment will continue to be eroded, he predicts, and he acknowledges the Government must play its role in preventing any divide between the information haves and have-nots. One step to prevent this was a cheap loans scheme for low-income families announced in this year's Budget.
But Bichard believes a further Budget commitment, this time to learning centres, will prove a more important weapon. "We have to make sure every community has access to a learning centre."
He points to these two initiatives, coupled with digital television that could bring Internet access to homes without a computer, as evidence that the Government "is doing everything we possibly could do to ensure everyone has access if they want it".
Access to official services will also be improved if proposals set out in the Modernising Government white paper become reality. The paper states the Government's aim to deliver all information services "through television set, phone or computer" by 2008, although Bichard hopes this will happen sooner.
However, he is concerned that such a technological revolution will unleash so much unstructured information that users will find it impossible to wade through it all. And, last year, Bichard warned local education authorities not to "swamp" schools with statistical information for fear of distracting them from the real job of raising standards.
Higher standards is a long-term goal of the Government's ambitious plans for information and communications technology (ICT) in schools. However, Bichard accepts it has not all been plain sailing. A lack of suitable software proved one obstacle, partly due to a lack of investment in hardware that until very recently meant developing programs was not economically viable. And teachers still lack confidence in using either hardware or software in class. But he remains hopeful that the spending on the National Grid for Learning will drive a software renaissance and that lottery-funded ICT training for teachers will drive change.
A challenge for his department, Bichard says, is in getting close enough to business to be able to make confident decisions about IT without becoming too close to certain suppliers. "I think we're getting better at it, but there is more that we can do," he says. "We've got a clearer sense of where we want to be in five to 10 years' time."
Bichard was responsible for unifying the departments of employment and education when they merged in July 1995. Though considerable progress has since been made, he believes there is a still a long way to go: civil servants need to focus more on outcomes than governmental processes, he says.
A change in focus was one factor behind Labour's introduction of non-civil servant advisers to departments. Though this policy has been criticised for politicising the Civil Service, Bichard shrugs it off. "There is no way in which the Civil Service can contain all the expertise it needs," he says.
Bichard is a great fan of different views. Last year, he brought management guru Edward de Bono, who coined the phrase lateral thinking, into the department in an attempt to bring industry savvy to civil servants. More than 200 staff heard de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" system, which is intended to speedup meetings and make them moreconstructive.
Bichard has also brought in the management consultancy company What If? to help the department become more innovative. "We need to change the way in which we think and manage and become more creative."
Change is a common refrain of Bichard's, so it is understandable that he is proud of his department's Investors in People mark, the government award that recognises good conditions of employment, staff development and training. "We've faced up to poor management in this organisation more than most departments. I don't take the view that the private sector has sole ownership of successful change. You can achieve change in the Civil Service if you can get people to own what you're trying to do - they'll begin to use their own initiative. That's the exciting bit and I think we're beginning to get there."
When interviewed by The TES in January 1996, he said he wanted to achieve three things in his time at the DFEE:imaginative and innovative policy advice, high-quality services and good management practices.
Whether he has achieved these yet is open to debate. Certainly Bichard admits that turning round an organisation as large as the DFEE takes far longer than the time he has been in the job. However, he seems to have laid good foundations and has reason to be positive about the future.
Tomorrow's World Live Event is at Earl's Court, June 30 to July 4, from 9.30am to 5pm weekdays and 9.30am to 6pm weekends.
Tickets cost pound;11.50, pound;8.50 concessions and pound;27.50 for a family. Ticket hotline: 0870 739 9333.
TESONLINE June 11 1999 profile Michael Bichard, permanent secretary of the DFEE, is a firm believer in the importance of ICT in education