Seeking ‘Bigger Deal’ in Public Service
- by Matthew Brodsky
Jane-Frances Kelly’s specialty is getting public leaders to answer the question: How is our country doing? Not just any public leaders. The people at the top. Like former British prime minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair.
The first time Kelly WG99 did the process with the Blair government, it was 2003 and the run-up to the Iraq War was in progress. If one reads Tony Blair’s diary from the time, the focus was on getting U.S. President George W. Bush to make the case for war to the United Nations and convincing British taxpayers of the need. Mostly. Blair did stay focused on the question that Kelly was working on: How are we doing at home?
She found herself in this supersized public role “out of sheer ignorance,” Kelly quips.
She was in London working with Boston Consulting Group (BCG), all the while her goal of working in government lingered in her mind. She tried to explore options with official government HR people, but found them to be among the most inflexible people she’s ever met. She then connected with a Princeton alum who was working in government (she got a dual degree: Wharton MBA/Princeton MPA). On a Tuesday, he responded that she would be perfect for a role with the prime minister’s strategy staff. He forwarded her c.v. On her first day—that following Monday—she found herself walking into No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence.
“I had no idea how exposed the job would be,” she says of the high-priority and high-visibility work she conducted.
She was there for nearly four years—which felt like 10 to her—then later worked on more strategic stock-taking with the subsequent government of former Labour leader Gordon Brown.
She ventured next to Australia, first as a part-time senior adviser with BCG but then to do the strategic analysis process with a couple of national governments in Australia.
Now, Kelly is back in one of the most interesting places in the world for doing public policy work: back home in Scotland. Although Scottish voters decided on Sept. 18, 2014, to remain in the United Kingdom, Scotland possesses its own parliament and is gaining additional powers of government as part of the post-referendum agreement. Scotland has its own first minister and a new head of civil service.
It’s quite a public sector career for someone who didn’t see her first supply and demand curves until 25. When Kelly was preparing to attend graduate school in the mid-90s, she had to ask what the “B” in MBA stood for. That very same day—at a Penn recruitment event in London—she ended up interviewing for the Wharton MBA Program even though her interests were in public policy. Kelly got in, in a special joint-degree program with Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
And as you might expect for someone who had to be told “B is for business,” her first year at Wharton was a culture shock. She says it was the biggest cultural shift in her life, even more than when, after studying at Oxford, she worked at a street clinic in Kolkata. Still, she took to her new business community. She went on to intern, then work, at Boston Consulting Group for two years in London. And she says that she would never have gotten to BCG had it not been for Wharton; the consultancy recruited her from campus (though she thinks that she would have gotten into government work with or without Wharton).
Having worked in both private and public arenas, Kelly has strong takes on both. Her position is that her BCG background was valuable to the U.K. government as relatively few civil servants had private-sector experience—though they had to completely retrain her in how they operated. Her private-sector background taught her how to get from point A to point B. But her public-sector work seems like a “bigger deal” to her. She compares her last assignment at BCG London in 2003—a £100 million corporate deal—with the first project she did with the Blair government that same year—a £1.7 billion funding stream for children’s centers. Her public service has also empowered her to “call bullshit” on anyone in the private sector who broad-brushes the public sector as wasteful, dull and inefficient.
“The superiority complex you come across in the private sector is unfounded,” she says.
But we’re not here to pick a fight with her—at least, I’m not—but more to let readers know that she is happy to talk to Wharton students or recent grads interested in public service. She is proud to represent the reality that Wharton grads can get into public policy and that, yes, the work they’ll find there is among the most challenging, interesting and valuable there is.