Recently, I completed the final year of an extremely rewarding four year stint selecting new Rhodes Scholars in Australia. The experience provoked renewed reflection on what we seek from our scholars and the nature of our commitment as Rhodes scholars.
The final test when making hard selection decisions for me comes down to an assessment of whom I think is most likely to change the world for the better. All candidates perform to high academic standards and demonstrate high levels of competence in many areas. Beyond that, the heart of the Rhodes ethos for me is a powerful desire to contribute to a better world - combined with capacity to do so.
A wonderful effect of living and studying in Oxford is exposure to an international community of extraordinary people. For many of us, this immersion simultaneously cut some limiting cords of earlier selves and lifted the ambitions of emergent selves.
I decided, coming out of my doctorate in medieval literature, that running programming for the BBC would be an outstanding way to bring marvelous content to many people. The logical next step was, of course… to join McKinsey & Co. That was a tough and ultimately life-changing experience that further supplemented a desire to change the world with some tools to do so.
The luxury of the Rhodes ethos to me is that it envisages self development as a collective or social good. Post McKinsey and a stint in government, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living doing just this.
It has arisen from doing something I would never have anticipated: founding a business – a public policy consultancy firm. The work I’ve undertaken with a series of teams over the years aspires to bring discipline and clear sightedness to problems that matter. The range is huge, the motivation and tools are constants. It might be designing better services for the most disadvantaged on a financially sustainable basis. Or growing an ecosystem that catalyses entrepreneurs and startups without defaulting to `business welfare’ as the lever to do so. It might be creating the conditions for cultural and creative output that is diverse and appeals across ages, backgrounds, dispositions and aspirations; that is multi- and mono-disciplinary and that can be provocative to those who fund it.
Taking on a Rhodes scholarship as a lifelong commitment can allow us to engage with public transformations that hopefully shape our worlds for the better.
My line of work gives me a privileged view of such shifts at a close range. They can be tectonic in impact - as well as pace. And, typically, they challenge existing orders as well as ultimately supporting and improving them.
For example, services that make a difference to those most in need are usually those wrapped around the individual, not dispensed in accordance with institutional convenience. Supply of these services is hard to get right and will always struggle to meet demand. More integrated and coordinated service delivery raises productivity, delivering better outcomes at a lower cost. But it requires rethinking the nature of ‘public’ administration.
The custodians of public administration increasingly are moving from owning and delivering solutions to co-producing them in collaboration with non-government providers including social enterprises, some of whom can leverage private capital for public good.
There are winners and losers from turning traditional models of service delivery upside down. Acquittal of public funds received as of right is no longer enough. Active research and evaluation processes measure the social returns on public investment, share best practice and promote innovation to improve the overall performance of the services system; at their best they also shine unwelcome light where needed.
Economic shifts create winners and losers too. Policy work that our firm has undertaken deals with a world of creative destruction, where innovation at the edge of an economy disrupts existing industries and businesses, creates great hardship for many and great opportunities for others. The hardest thing to outsource to an algorithm is creativity and this is rarely a focus for those who are engaged in more routine tasks and can be losing their jobs. But in the long run, denial or delay of disruptive change will cause the greater harm. And so we continue to advocate bringing it on.
Which brings me back to diversity. My recent experience on the selection panel for new scholars, a typically humbling and inspiring experience, reminded me of the need to relentlessly renew and refresh the diversity of our community through the scholars we select. Diverse views arise from diverse experiences. It’s true that uniformity, in this case of our elected scholars, doesn’t rule out achieving much positive change – but perhaps not always as much, or in the best ways or on the highest priorities.
It can be hard to resist the lure of recruiting in one’s own image, whether new scholars or professional colleagues. The differences of background, privilege, culture, gender, ethnicity, discipline – can be barriers to renewal and challenge. It’s important to look at ourselves as well as at the problems we seek to tackle, and to shine the light of disruption inwardly as well as outwardly.
Dr Bronte Adams (Western Australia & Balliol 1986) read DPhil Engilish at Oxford University and went on to work at McKinsey & Co. Later she founded the public policy consultancy dandolopartners.