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No, Prime Minister – time for a new style of public sector leader

By Karen CherrettLesley Fordyce and Mark Bell, PA government and public services experts.

There are some TV ads in the UK showing the comic consequences of relying on poor vision and old spectacles: a fiancée kisses a complete stranger at a train station and two pensioners end up eating their cheese and pickle sandwiches on a roller-coaster. The ads highlight a serious message: if you don’t have clarity of sight you must accept the unintended, even disastrous, consequences of relying on assumptions. 

In a fast-changing world, the public sector will need this same clarity of sight in its leaders: bold pioneers, able to look beyond the obvious and shake up old patterns of behaviour and entrenched attitudes. The sector will only be able to attract this type of person by challenging its own assumptions about what public-sector leaders look like and how they operate. If it doesn’t, it risks becoming as disorientated and ineffective as the characters in the optician’s television advertising.

Challenging assumptions about who should lead and how

‘Public sector leaders need to be safe, steady, policy-makers’: Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service, has praised “innovators and risk-takers” like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, stating that he wants to recruit talent like this into the civil service to make it “fast, agile and digital”. His words could be interpreted as a call for an injection of entrepreneurial and innovative talent. Certainly, this accords with the apparent cross-party ambition to commercialise the sector, creating a more cost-conscious and productive workforce whilst protecting the public service ethos.

‘Recruiting in your own image will ensure longevity, legacy and success’: In the past decade, the sector has recruited several successful private-sector executives to senior roles – but they don’t stay long. In many cases the sector sought to craft these people in their own image and, if they did not fit the mould, cast them aside rather than nurture the value of their difference.

The public sector should not bring in commercial innovators only to assimilate them into a public servant mind-set. It needs to nurture creative thinkers, including those already present in its ranks, allowing them the space to be themselves rather than seeing them as dangerous risk-takers.

‘Private-sector decision making is impetuous and risky’: The public sector is usually seen as bureaucratic, lethargic and indecisive while the commercial world is seen as agile and dynamic. In reality, there are bureaucratic leviathans in corporate boardrooms as well as within public-sector hierarchies. The difference in the speed of decision making stems not from organisational structure, but from leadership style.

Fast, confident decision making happens when leaders let the people who are closest to the action take decisions. Successful consumer businesses, for example, tend to give their staff, such as shop assistants and hotel receptionists, who work directly with customers the power to resolve customer issues at the point where they arise. Whether in the public or private sector, leaders at the highest possible level must set a framework that allows empowered decision-making to take place at the lowest possible level. 

Why does getting the right talent mix matter so much now?

The future executive leadership of the public service will need to continue to balance cash saving and policy interpretation in a way that protects both the sector’s underlying service ethos and services themselves. This will require people who understand politics and risk, but are not constrained by bureaucracy and fear of failure.

To create this mix of skills, the sector needs to identify the most able public and commercial servants and think about new ways to develop them. Investing and nurturing the right talent won’t be without expense but cultivating a loyal and engaged leadership has the potential to save money in the long run.

As it looks to the future, the sector needs to put on new lenses and recognise what opportunities exist outside the norm.

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