Public sector leaders need to make a six-point turn to face big challenges27 January 2010
Despite our famous British wartime spirit, there must have been moments of doubt in many public sector offices a couple of weeks ago as civil servants deliberated whether to battle through the snow to get to work. With massive budget cuts looming, the weather was surely a welcome diversion. Who could have blamed managers if they had decided to stay at home and enjoy the snow?
In reality, there is little sympathy for public sector leaders. They are perceived as better rewarded than their private sector equivalents, with less chance of redundancy. Many say they have had it too good and need a shake-up.
News about the performance of public sector management continues to disappoint. The recent Management Agenda 2010 report indicates that the public sector has relatively little faith in the ability of its own leaders to tackle performance issues. Nick Bosanquet, consultant director for thinktank Reform, says: "What we have now is a public sector that is better paid in many ways than the private sector, but does not have the drive to raise its productivity. That is the job for the next 10 years."
A fresh type of leadership is urgently required to enable the massive transformation in thinking and effectiveness that is necessary. Essex county council's eight-year agreement with IBM is an example of the sort of outsourcing solution that's likely if things don't change.
It's a neat answer that appears to reduce bureaucracy and boost the frontline, but it is likely to store up problems for the future unless done extremely sensitively and with more joined-up leadership than local authorities are used to. If public sector leaders want to be in good shape for the big challenges ahead, they are going to have to make six important shifts:
1. Learn how to lead radical, cultural change
Many have become adept at implementing changes in a controlled, programmatic way, but this does not encourage staff to take greater responsibility for outcomes and demonstrate more innovative, cost-aware attitudes. Leaders need to learn how to do something more scary and less constrained. This means articulating goals more bravely, then experimenting, responding, removing obstacles and unleashing energy - not doing change to people. The results will be quicker, more dramatic and more sustainable. But it takes courage and skill.
2. Develop a truly integrated approach to leadership
Despite much talk of joined-up initiatives, departmental leaders are still defending their fiefdoms. It's an understandable but very wasteful way of surviving the mushiness of multiple agendas and the vagaries of politicians. Work needs to start at the top, with integrated executive teams. This is not just inter-personal work, but deeper, more fundamental team building in which competing interests are aired and priorities settled, not swept under the carpet.
3. Get better at understanding complex problems
Leaders need to find better ways of leading in complex situations, particularly working in partnership with other bodies providing public services. New techniques can help with this.
4. Carrot and stick
Public sector leaders need to balance the desire to drive progress and "cut through" resistance with an emphasis on developing more engaging ways of helping people to contribute to success. Sir David Henshaw, the former chief executive of Liverpool city council, learned the power of this when he transformed the council's performance some years ago. Henshaw got to grips with some tough financial restructuring early on, but he also recognised the need to spend time connecting with people on the frontline, being open and transparent about the challenges involved.
5. Less focus on behaviour, and more focus under the surface
There is too much blind faith in management training. Unless it's precisely targeted, the impact on delivery is small. Sharper private sector companies stopped relying on this years ago, but the public sector is still wasting money on it. Leaders need instead to focus on identifying the deeper obstacles to higher performance and sorting them, which demands boldness and a keener collective sense of the important priorities.
6. Guard against too much niceness
Leaders in the public sector need to learn how to have tough conversations about what's not working.
This means getting beyond half-hearted performance reviews, while staying away from bullying. Leaders also need to find ways of encouraging people to be assertive, to push back on initiatives and directives that they think don't make sense and won't work. At the moment, there's too much private grumbling, which feeds a demoralised, victim culture.
There's plenty of difficult weather ahead for people in the public sector, and leaders must get equipped and head bravely into the storm.
If they take the other option, and stay nice and cosy at home, they might find themselves snowed in and cut off for good.