Changing the Public sector by extending the past into the future will never get us the change we need
Maurice Duffy

Written by Maurice Duffy

In the words of Kissinger: “If you do not know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.” In this vein, what strikes me is that we are lacking a single definition of the generic dimensions to public services leadership, especially considering that there has been vast investment in a multitude of models. These can be identified by the current discourse in this area which makes use of the terms: collective (shared / distributed) leadership; collaborative leadership / partnership working; adaptive leadership; and transformational leadership.

However there is good evidence to suggest that:

·         The public services are not attracting or retaining the right talent, nor do they have sufficiently robust programmes for recruiting the right people to the critical positions that matter most.

·         There is a tendency to undervalue jobs and careers in the public services, and I would say that top leadership jobs are, arguably, underpaid. Yes, of course we get the media hype that focuses on a few exceptions but we have to match performance with pay; we have to match value with performance; we have to match a community of interest measuring true value in a transparent manner.

·         The culture of the environment is a process of “extending the past into the future”and expecting a different result each time with those who have managed in the past, tending to hire those in our image for the future. This is not intentional but as a result of experience bias.

·         There are many leadership development initiatives (too many) and new leadership colleges are being set up. As with many learning initiatives, the true ROI of these investments is not truly measured and we continue to repeat the same solutions again and again without any real knowledge of sustainable impact.

·         Virtual leadership and cross boundary leadership are not core competencies and shared learning is not prevalent in my experience.

·         Public services leaders are often unable to lead effectively because others fail to give them the freedom, the support systems or the challenges that will permit them to do so.

·         There is little shared understanding of the qualities required for effective leadership in today’s public services.

·         Leadership theory is driven by conflicting interpretations, in a full spectrum from those who emphasise the primary importance of personal qualities, to those who say that systems are all-important.

·         Leaders themselves often do not understand the reasons for their own effectiveness.

·         There is a lack of the most basic information about leaders and leadership in the public services: data on career progression, turnover, wastage rates and systematic tracking of the career moves of individuals.

The use of Silver Bullet solutions—such as wholesale import of leaders from the Private Sector or big increases in pay—will not address the public services' leadership problems.

To achieve sustained change requires action at every level—from leaders themselves, from those to whom they are accountable, from human resource directors and those shaping public services at all levels of government. This action should include:

1.    Striking a better balance between the freedom to lead and the ability to hold public services leaders to account for their performance.

2.    Recruitment of the right skills with the right attitudes, driving a more vigorous approach to recruitment and selection by individual public services organisations, such as schools and NHS Trusts, and better marketing of the opportunities in the Public Services.

3.    “Unlearning” by leaders, before they learn. Too often we see great programmes, poorly rolled out and we need a more intensive development of leaders and potential leaders, drawing on best practice, and with a stronger emphasis on joining-up across sectors. These actions can be taken forward by the Cabinet Office, using its existing forums: the Public Services Employers Forum and the Public Services Leadership Development Forum.

In response to growing demands for public accountability and improved performance, I would argue that in organisations of any size and complexity, it is impossible to manage for results in the long or short run, without a well-developed capacity for strategic leadership, which is different from that being experienced today.