Lobbyists and educational privatization
Lobbyists are paid to influence government officials. They often operate behind closed doors, hidden from public view. In the education sector, for-profit companies rely on the work of lobbyists to promote commercial interests in public policy, from privately operated public schools to the use of education technology inside classrooms.
Our guest in this episode, author, lobbyist, and activist, Tamasin Cave, shines a light on commercial lobbyists in Britain’s education sector. A director of SpinWatch and leader of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, Cave talks about her book, co-authored with Andy Rowell, entitled: A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, which was published in 2014 by Random House.
Cave reveals the techniques used by successful lobbyists and discusses the revolving door among government officials, commercial lobbyists, and media elite. She calls for transparency in lobbying and reveals how she thinks like a lobbyist.
Citation: Tamasin, Cave, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 3, podcast audio, November 9, 2015. https://freshedpodcast.com/tamasincave/
Will Brehm 2:07
Tamasin Cave, welcome to FreshEd.
Tamasin Cave 2:10
Will Brehm 2:11
In your new or relatively new, co-authored book, you focus on lobbyists and their influence on government officials. How did you get involved in the subject of lobbyists and in the quiet world of lobbying, as you say?
Tamasin Cave 2:30
Yes, I am a researcher and a writer. And I actually work for a not-for-profit organization, a small one in the UK, called Spin Watch, which does what it says on the tin in that we look at the public relations and commercial lobbying industries in the UK mainly. And so within that context, I have researched a number of sectors; education is one. So looking at the mainly private sector organizations that are trying to influence government decisions. I should also say that I am myself a lobbyist. And that I, as part of my work with Spin Watch, have been trying to get transparency regulations in the UK for lobbyists. Like the ones that they have in the States and in Canada, so that the public can see who is lobbying whom about what. So we can have some sort of debate and dialogue about the influence industry in the UK. And actually, within the context of that campaign, I should say, I mean, effectively, I’ve been lobbying against the commercial lobbying industry, because they’re not terribly keen on being that transparent. And so I’ve seen, kind of firsthand, some of the tools and tactics that they use in order to sway government, particularly around this register of lobbyists that I’ve been lobbying for in the UK. So I’ve had first hand experience of them.
Will Brehm 4:03
Right, and so to dig into this firsthand experience and some of the tactics that lobbyists use, let’s focus on one of the chapters that you write about on education, which the Guardian, I read recently, praised, actually as one of the best chapters in the book. Maybe to jump into this, the best way is to use an example of Michael Gove. Can you explain who he is and his relationship to lobbyists?
Tamasin Cave 4:35
Yeah, so Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education in the UK between 2010 and 2014. So he was … they came in … it was a coalition government; he’s a conservative politician, but he was part of a coalition government that came to power in 2010. And with it, he introduced wide ranging reforms to the education system. Notably, this expansion of a quasi schools market. So more independent schools and our equivalent of charter schools, which are free schools, known as free schools in the UK. So he is, or was the UK’s leading education reformer. He’s a former journalist, actually. And actually, very well connected to networks of think tanks and lobbyists. So he was chair of one of the UK’s leading think tanks, which is called Policy Exchange. It’s been a very, very vocal champion for this market in schools. It promotes, for example, for-profit-making schools, and it’s really helped to shape the climate of reform in the UK. And you can see actually, as part of this networks that Michael Gove was at the time in the Department of Education. But you can see the movement of personnel between the Policy Exchange, which kind of acted like a bit of a feeder school, for Michael Gove’s department. So a lot of people moving from the Policy Exchange to the Department of Education. And so you see this kind of blurring of the lines between the commercial lobbying industry – and I would definitely include think tanks in there – and policymakers.
Will Brehm 6:29
Yeah, so this revolving door in a sense. Gove’s view on technology in education seems to have changed, and that’s an argument you kind of make. How did that change come about? Who was involved? What were the lobby efforts that occurred?
Tamasin Cave 6:49
Yeah, I think this is actually a presentational issue rather than a moment of awakening that Michael Gove had. Certainly when he came in, he was portrayed very deliberately in a particular way. So he was, I suppose, reassuringly conservative and traditional. There was a spate of stories that defined who Gove was. It was about school discipline. It was about pupils wearing blazers and ties, about learning Latin. We had this initiative where every school in the country was going to be sent a St. James bible inscribed in gold from the Secretary of State, Michael Gove. You know, it was all about creating an impression that he was this very conservative traditional figure that was all about standards and tradition. And then, very quietly, very subtly, other messages were brought in almost 18 months, a couple of years later, where we see Michael Gove talking a lot more about education technology. And actually, it’s interesting to contrast his words here to him talking about it in the States. There’s a lot of movement, I mean he goes to, or he used to go to the States a lot to conferences, and meetings with education reformers there. So there was a point where he was a keynote speaker at Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. And he talks much more deliberately and enthusiastically about edtechthere and about what, he was asked about what the UK could do to get more computers into schools. And he started talking about how you can introduce computer science and coding into the curriculum and things, which is one of the things that he did. So it’s not so much that he had this kind of conversion, but more that it was a presentational thingbecause it was interesting during, when we had Leveson inquiry into phone hacking, Michael Gove was asked about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch, for example. And we know that Murdoch is invested in education technology, was at the time with Amplify, and Gove talked quite openly about how he’d spoken with Murdoch about how education was going to change through technology, conversations he had also had with Microsoft and Pearsons. So there’s obviously discussions being had, but the public face of Michael Gove was a very traditional conservative figure. It’s interesting, actually, just to look at the way that the whole of the education reform agenda has been presented in the UK, and certainly contrasted with what happened in the sector of health. We’ve had, I don’t know if you’ll be aware, but in 2010, the government introduced wide ranging reforms to the National Health Service in the UK. And the way that it was done was with this very big dramatic piece of legislation. And it came as a shock to the public. They were very market-driven reforms, was about privatizing large parts of the NHS. And there was a kind of a gung ho attitude: we’re going to do this, we’re going to push it through. And they came up against so much opposition, they had to pause the legislation because of all the protests in the street, and the health secretary who drove that through was heavily criticized, and eventually lost his job because of the way he’d managed the process. Now Gove, by contrast, was pushing through equally radical market reforms, but he was praised because he did it in such a way as not to alert the public. So immediately, I’m curious, these are the same policy agendas, essentially, but they are being presented in very, very different ways. So I think certainly the way that Gove’s department, and the government’s handled these education reforms has been very clever.
Will Brehm 11:08
Right, and you talk about how lobbyists, typically, their goal is to influence government officials by potentially selling them on a particular policy solution. But in education, in the reforms and education in the UK, for instance, you say it’s more about the lobbyists having shared interests with certain government officials? Can you talk a little bit about those shared interests and how they then manifest in policy and how they met the interests of lobbyists?
Tamasin Cave 11:48
Yeah, I think this is something that often gets confused. Very often, we see lobbyists as parasitic to our political systems, or you know, they’re on the outside pushing in. And it’s absolutely crucial to remember that lobbyists are insiders, and they are very much embedded within our political system in the UK, as elsewhere. And more than that, they actually effectively subsidize it. They’re there with the research; they’re there with the people from, you know, they can mobilize people to support policies; they can provide funding and personnel to push particular agendas. They can do all sorts of things to support politicians’ aims. So the first thing to think is that lobbyists are inside the system, they’re not outside pushing in. And the second thing to realize is, I mean, certainly in the UK, and I know this more in health than I do in education, but we’ve seen a kind of a hollowing out of the state and a replacement. That replacing that expertise with commercial interests, and whether that’s the big consultancy firms, or companies themselves. But certainly, there is a shared agenda now between, I’d say, the senior officials, and politicians, and corporate interests. And so there’s that kind of an elite thinking, that they very much all think the same.
They think very differently, often, from the general public, but there is certainly an elite level of decision-makers whose views are indistinguishable from those of the lobbyists that surround them. And this has happened for a number of reasons. The revolving door you mentioned before plays a massive part in this. So, you see the movement and personnel in and out of government, and one minute, they’ll be writing the policy. And the next minute, they’ll be implementing it, but within a corporate environment. So there’s a guy that I can mention in the health sector, he was writing the policy. He then went to work for KPMG. And was, whilst he was working for KPMG, he felt he could say quite openly in a forum of private equity investors, that the NHS will be shown no mercy and that it was going to move from a state provider of care to a state insurer. I mean, these are radical, radical things to say, but he felt that that was okay to say that within that environment. It was only when that became public, that they realized that actually this is scandalous to the public. So there is this kind of a comfort level within any decision making, where they generally think the same. So there is no persuading that needs to happen. And you see that as much in education as you do in other sectors like health.
Will Brehm 14:51
Right. And so can you talk more about some of the specific strategies lobbyists use to maybe not only win over the elite opinion makers, but also more of the grassroots level, you know, the public. How do they get their views changed by lobbyists?
Tamasin Cave 15:12
Yeah, there’s, I mean, there’s a vast number of ways that lobbyists do it. But you can see, I mean, doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at the tobacco industry, the oil industry, or the education industry, they have a shared way of working, and they borrow techniques and tactics from each other. And the way that, I mean, some of the ways that they do it, you’ve got to think of it like building influence. It’s like building a bridge: you put certain things together, you need a bit of money, you need people with skills, and you build it. It doesn’t magically happen, so you’ve got to think of it like that. So one of the key things that they do is, certainly when speaking to the public, is use public relations. So this is a major part of the lobbying industry’s arsenal. And over and again, particularly in the education field, you hear them talking about the need for a compelling narrative. So you will have heard these narratives many, many times. They’re sold to us as if they’re truths, but they are stories. They are stories that are designed to capture our attention, and to persuade. They’re not evidence based; they are literally just stories. So ways of selling the reform agenda. And it’s making sure that the public understands why reform is necessary, and why it’s necessary now.
So there’s normally a sense of urgency. And there’s a group of lobbyists, actually, who talk about these compelling cases for change. And messages need to be rational, there needs to be emotional, you need to have personal stories in there. They talk about how New York City, they talk about, oh yes, it’s about college and career readiness. It’s the same reform agenda, but the narrative is about getting kids ready for college. Brazil, they talk about extending educational opportunities to everyone. It’s the same reform agenda but that’s a narrative that sold, that’s been used to sell it. Australia, they talk about how kids are really keen on tech, so let them use it in school. Again, that’s a narrative being sold to sell a particular reform agenda. So, the first thing is creating this compelling case for change, because the one thing that lobbyists understand is that they need to own debates. What they don’t want to do is argue on somebody else’s ground. And I’ll just explain this a bit more. Framing is absolutely key. I will give you an example: if, for example, a company wants to do something, and there is an environmental problem associated with it, they don’t want to have a debate about that environmental impact because it’s a debate they’re probably going to lose. So what we want to do is shift the terms of the debate unto ground that you can win. So they might make it about jobs. And hope that the public ignores the conversation about the environmental impact. And you’re making sure that that seems like an extremist debate to have. The real debate is about jobs. And they’ve done it in education as well. So it’s all about shifting unto ground that you control the terms of the debate. So this framing is very important to lobbyists. So that’s one thing that they do.
Then, I suppose the other key technique to talk about is, I mean, it lies at the heart of PR, which is making sure that other people other than the corporate, self-interested corporation is promoting these messages, because if a corporation says, “We should follow this particular reform agenda”, people are unlikely to believe it. What you need is, you need other people to sell it for you. So this is classic third-party technique. And you want credible third parties who have access to the media, who will be able to shout this message for you. Think tanks are very, very useful in this guise. And there are some think tanks that are indistinguishable from commercial lobbying agencies. They perform the same functions. Third-party lobby groups, that could be trade bodies, or it could be groups set up specifically to promote a particular agenda. And we call them ‘front groups’ in that particular instance. And the education reform movement is full of these third-party activists. You know, there are the foot soldiers in the lobbying groups, there are the, sort of, I would call them astroturf campaigns or fake grassroot campaign groups that are presenting themselves as the voice of parents or the voice of students, but they are entirely funded by companies that stand to gain financially from this particular reform agenda. So it’s making sure that these particular third-parties are recognized. We’ve written a lot about it. In terms of, it’s been watching with regards to the tobacco industry, and it’s very clear, you can see where Philip Morris is funding people. It’s slightly harder to see, particularly in the UK, because, for example, the think tanks here generally tend not to say who their funders are. So you can hear the messages, the reform messages that have been put out, but you can’t trace the money back. It’s sometimes easier in the States, sometimes not. But there’s nothing, there’s no law that says they need to declare their funders.
Will Brehm 20:48
So these three main strategies: the narrative, setting the narrative, setting the frame, and having the third-party promotion of these ideas. Waiting for Superman, the movie about DC schools, I think, seems to have all of those pieces. And in fact, I think your research really looked at where the funding came from for that movie. Could you talk a little bit about Waiting for Superman and how it fits all of these different key lobbyists or key elements of the lobbyists movement?
Tamasin Cave 21:28
Yeah, I mean, Waiting for Superman was one of a number of films that was put out that had this kind of reform agenda. I talked in the beginning about how lobbyists understand the need for both rational and emotional messages. They need to appeal to people’s emotional selves. And this is something that actually campaigners, public interest campaigners, sometimes forget. So, it was all designed to pull your heartstrings. I mean, it was a very compelling film. Emotionally and rationally, it had this urgency that we need change, we need change now, because these kids’ lives are at stake. It very much drove home the message that America’s public education system is failing students. I mean that’s kind of a blanket message across the states and across the UK. What it did then is, it needed to find a bogeyman and the bogeyman was what’s been termed ‘the blob’. It is a term that’s used in the States and in the UK, which is the bureaucracy of education. So the teachers’ unions, the civil servants, the teachers themselves. They’re all standing in the way of this reform agenda. And then, here comes the jump. So that’s all the problems and then you need to present the solution. And the solution is freeing schools from state control and democratic oversight and whatnot. And the reformers come in with their solution. Now, there is a disconnect between problem, solution, but not as it’s presented in these films. It’s a very cleverly woven-together story, not without some truth. There needs to be an element of truth but it is a crafted narrative. And film is a very, very powerful way of reaching a particular audience. And Waiting for Superman appealed to the policy nerds a little bit. There was another film, which was called Won’t Back Down, which was a fiction film. And that was designed to appeal to the quote, ‘folks on the couch’, so more general public. But it was exactly the same message. So you know, I mean, film is a very powerful medium. And why try and get through to people just through newspapers or TV or whatever? Let’s use the movies.
Will Brehm 24:04
Earlier, you said that the media plays a big role in lobbyists’ efforts. And you mentioned Rupert Murdoch and his interest in education technology. Can you explain that a little bit more, and perhaps some of the issues that arise when the media is so involved in lobbying for particular policies?
Tamasin Cave 24:28
Yes. So it won’t come as news to anybody that people like Rupert Murdoch have invested in education technology, as have many other media groups that are looking for ways of generating revenue outside of newspapers, which are seeing declining profits. So they have an interest in promoting this particular agenda. And certainly, we see it through the Murdoch press and he owns the Sunday Times, and that has been a champion of education technology. And it’s given voice to people like John Cline who works for Murdoch. And they’ve been able to talk about this wonderful new future presented by technology in teaching. The problem is when we rely on, for example, the mainstream media as a public forum for debate. And one of the things that surprised me enormously in the UK is about how little debate we’re having about this, particularly with regards to education technology. I’ve been to a number of conferences, where you’ve had a couple of 100 people from the States and the UK and elsewhere. Investors. These are investors in education. And the enthusiasm for education technology, how it’s going to radically change teaching. How it’s going to cut costs in education. How it’s the solution to all our woes. And the sheer amount of money going into education technology is absolutely astonishing. So there is one conversation being had amongst a very very small, elite network of people. And I see none of it filtering down into public debate. So the conversations that have been had around education in the UK have been very, very limited. And I think this is actually fairly deliberate. For example, when Gove came in, we did have a debate about education. But it was about the content of the history curriculum. Now, that is important, and I’m sure it’s very important to some people. But it wasn’t the debate that was being held elsewhere. It was a very heated debate in the press, and reams and reams of column inches discussing whether we should teach this or teach that. And it had all the elements of a very controversial, you know, exciting debate. But it was very different from the debate that I was seeing when I was going to these conferences about the money being invested in education technology, and how that was going to radically, I mean, really radically change education. So I think there is a problem when the debate is left to organizations that have a vested interest in not discussing it in public. And one of the reasons I think we should talk about lobbyists more in this, is because they are very good at controlling what is seen in our papers. So they push stories in, but they also spend half of their time keeping stories out of the press. And you know, that is their job. So I think it is very problematic.
Will Brehm 27:58
I’d like to switch focus just quickly on to methods. Your name is attached to Spin Watch, which is calling for transparency in the lobbyist industry. And you’ve written a book exposing a lot of some of the perhaps unknown tactics that lobbyists use, how difficult is it for you to research lobbyists now?
Tamasin Cave 28:28
It’s not an industry that likes exposure, put it like that. I mean, there’s the old truth: the best PR is that which goes unnoticed. And as soon as you start making visible some of this stuff, it loses a lot of its power.
Will Brehm 28:47
So what are some of your techniques to approach this industry that likes to be opaque?
Tamasin Cave 28:55
Well, I think the most fundamental thing is that you can think like a lobbyist. I mean, you’ve got to think, if there’s a particular policy agenda you want to push, you want the government to take a particular action, how are you going to get the government to do that? And it might be that you just need to take the Minister out for dinner, and have a quiet word. And that is sufficient to get the policy change that you want. More likely, within the context of these big reform agendas, you are going to have to change the climate of debate. And so you’re going to see lots of PR activity. You’re going to see lots of activity from think tanks,. You’re going to see the setting up of front groups. You’re going to see funding of big campaigns that repeat the same message again and again and again. And so it’s knowing what to look out for. So starting by thinking like a lobbyist. And then you start to notice a campaign. I’ll give you an example: there has been a massive push to get kids coding, and it’s not just been in the UK, it’s been everywhere. I mean, it’s a huge PR effort to get kids into coding. And I suppose it kicked off in the UK with a speech that Eric Schmidt gave. And it was about how we needed to reform our education system in the UK. And we need to do it urgently because we were throwing away this computer heritage, and he sort of harks back to the Victorian era, and to the lions tea shop that had the first commercial computer. And it was all about nostalgia for this once great Britain and all this kind of stuff. And the solution was: you need to teach kids coding. And it was widely covered in the press that this is absolutely what we needed to do. And then you fast forward two years, and I noticed, Google was saying very much the same thing in Australia, but it was couched in very different terms. It was the same message, which is you need to teach kids to code. But it was couched in the language of: “What are you going to do when the mining money runs out?” So they were tapping into this fear that the Australians have of, you know, where’s their economy going to be in the future? What are their industries going to be? You need to teach your kids to code, and it’ll be technology, that’s the future. It was the same message but couched in very different terms. I noticed, and this is obviously pure coincidence, that both speeches coincided with the launch of Google’s Chromebook for schools. Now, that’s purely coincidental, but you can see how this public relations, this campaign, this wave of “teach your kids to code” was moving around the world. But it was furthering the commercial interests of particular corporations. And once you know what you’re looking for, then you start to see it.
Will Brehm 32:01
Right? And what about access to say, lobbyists or policymakers? Is it difficult to get access to do just regular old interviews with them?
Tamasin Cave 32:14
I suppose, you’d have to sort of question how valuable would it be to talk to a politician about this, given that there is a very, very carefully crafted message being put out there. What is useful is reading the conversations between lobbyists and politicians that you can sometimes access through Freedom of Information Law. That has proved useful, and you can see the kind of closeness of the relationships. You can hear the tone of the conversation about, you know, these are personal, social relationships a lot of the time. So you get a kind of a feel for the kind of relationship between some lobbyists and politicians. I say with the Department of Education, it was quite difficult. Michael Gove was caught doing a Hillary Clinton and using a private email address. And certainly, it’s quite guarded about the kind of information that it releases. So it’s quite difficult.
Will Brehm 33:28
And what about surprises? What have been some of the biggest surprises that you’ve experienced along your research into different industries in the lobbyist movement?
Tamasin Cave 33:43
I think the surprise, I mentioned it before, but the surprise has been really how little public debate there is, given that you have politicians within closed forums talking about the massive fundamental changes that are going to happen in education. You hear education investors talking about how this is a, however many, trillion dollar industry globally. I heard one the other day saying: “there’s enough for everybody, let’s all make hay”. And they’re talking about it in those terms, and yet, there’s absolutely no – or very, very little – public debate about the privatization of education, the commercialization of education. And I suppose that’s what shocked me the most.
Will Brehm 34:31
Tamasin Cave, thanks for joining FreshEd.
Tamasin Cave 35:00