There has been a significant amount of criticism recently of private sector business leaders working as non-executives in government. The recent report by Insight Public Affairs, for example, pointed to a "lack of clarity about the role of non-executive directors" on departmental boards. In reality, the outcome is a mixed bag: some departments and agencies claim that they are getting value from their investment, whereas others tell us they have had little or no return.
The commentary from non-executives in these roles is also mixed: a number say they are able to contribute significantly, but many others believe that their talent and contributions are being wasted and under-valued. There is more than enough feedback to highlight frustration on all sides about their role.
Government still has a lot to do in terms of its delivery agenda. It is vitally important, therefore, that it does not give up on its objective of bringing business and commercial acumen into Whitehall. Building a business-like ethos into the workings of government is not easy, and the mixed record of non-executive private sector leaders in government thus far was to be expected, especially in light of a lack of clarity around the role and the different approaches being taken by departments. However, these early problems can and should be fixed.
Three steps to take
• Government departments should focus more clearly on selecting the right people. That means finding non-executives with a successful business background who also understand the complexity of delivery in government.
• These non-executives need to be willing to spend enough time really understanding and getting a real grip on the workings and culture of the public sector organisations they are working with. Translating a private sector idea to the government environment does not usually work.
• Public sector leaders have to be confident enough to be open to different points of view, accepting advice rather than just seeing it as interference.
It is clear that there are real and further benefits to be gained from giving government departments access to private sector expertise through non-executives. The right private sector leaders can not only bring a different leadership and commercial perspective, they can also make major contributions in relation to the value that can be generated in areas such as innovation, technology exploitation, supplier management, cost control and – of course – frontline delivery. It is up to both sides now to work together more effectively to refine the current approach so that those benefits can be realised and turned into long lasting results. There will continue to be mistakes and errors along the way, but both private and public sectors should play a long game here.
Andrew Hooke is head of government practice and chief operating officer at PA Consulting Group
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