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Strengthening Leadership in the Public Sector

This review of the relevant literature was published 12 years ago

  1. What is different now?  What is no longer true?
  2. What would be different if we were aiming to Strengthen Leadership (performance) Across All Sectors?
  3. What are the challenges that Leader for Leeds might be able to tackle?

Key findings

1  Britain’s public services face unprecedented challenges at the start of the 21st century. They include:

  • demands to modernise public services and orient them more closely to the needs and wishes of customers;
  • higher expectations on the part of the general public, who expect public services to keep up with private ones;
  • increased opportunities, and requirements, for partnerships both across the public sector and with private and voluntary organisations;
  • pressures to harness new technology and deliver government services electronically.

There is much excellent leadership in the public services today. But there is evidence to suggest that:

  • the public services are not attracting or keeping the best leaders, and do not have sufficiently robust strategies for recruiting them to the posts that
  • matter most; jobs and careers in the public services are undervalued, and top leadership jobs are, arguably, underpaid. Too few organisations seek
  • actively to recruit the best leaders;
  • there are many leadership development initiatives and new leadership colleges are being set up. But there is little evidence so far as to their effectiveness. And too little attention is paid to the growing importance of leadership across organisational boundaries, or to learning between different sectors;
  • public service 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.

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

Leadership theory is riven 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 sector: data on career progression, turnover, wastage rates, and systematic tracking of the career moves of individuals.

4   Magic solutions – such as wholesale import of leaders from the private sector or big increases in pay – will not address the public sector’s 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:

  • striking a better balance between the freedom to lead and the ability to hold public service leaders to account for their performance;
  • more vigorous approaches to recruitment and selection by individual public service organisations, such as schools and NHS Trusts, and
  • better marketing of the opportunities the public sector offers; and more intensive development of leaders and potential leaders, drawing on best practice, and with a stronger emphasis on joining-up across sectors.

Understanding what works

5   Fundamental to improved leadership is a clearer shared understanding of what leadership behaviours work in delivering today’s public services.

6   Parachuting in charismatic super-leaders to solve crisis situations may be necessary in some circumstances, but is not sufficient to deliver a systemic reinvigoration of public sector leadership. Leadership is a complex task – and often depends on organisational and structural change.

7   Most of the work in improving leadership has to be driven forward by departments and agencies themselves. But in the long run it will also be important to develop a research programme to underpin work to increase the pool of public service leaders. We need to urgently establish how to improve the evidence base for recruitment planning in the public services. Best practice in leadership development should be shared across public sector organisations.

Marketing jobs and careers in the public services

8   The government must offer a better deal for public service leaders to make the public sector more attractive. This should build on attractive careers, conditions of work and valuing expertise, but with a new emphasis on public sector values, on pay and valuing outstanding leadership. A group of high level leadership champions drawn from leaders in the field should be established to raise the profile of public service leadership and help “sell” a better deal for public service workers and leaders. The public service should articulate its core values more explicitly. Pay should be adjusted where it is shown to be a barrier to mobility. A new award scheme to recognise outstanding public leadership should be explored further.

9   Public services require a more mobile workforce and a wider pool of leaders. This requires them to harness benefits from a more joined-up approach to recruitment, development and promotion across sectors by taking a much more cross-sectoral approach to recruitment to posts.

Development for leaders

11   Across the public sector, there is a need for better development of leaders, with greater emphasis on learning across sectors. Taught programmes should be used where appropriate, but combined with informal development such as mentoring within and across sectors. Secondments are an important tool for individuals’ development that promote understanding between “centre” and “field” and help promote joined-up service delivery. A “sponsors group” should meet regularly to spread best leadership development practice across sectors.

Freedom to lead

12 Public service leaders require appropriate challenge from those to whom they are accountable (politicians, non-executives and inspectorates). But they also need to be given the space in which to lead from politicians and central government. Policy-makers should more systematically take account of the effects of policies, guidance and legislation in either encouraging or constraining leadership. Departments should ensure that relations between politicians and chief executives are clarified and promote initiatives in joint training of political and administrative leaders. Inspection bodies should collectively look at leadership performance. Non-executives should be trained in best recruitment practice and in the effective holding of leaders to account for performance. The PIU should undertake scoping work on a project to examine in more detail the options for encouraging greater entrepreneurship and risk within the public sector.

The full report is available here:  Strengthening Leadership in the Public Sector