Leadership by example is fundamental to modern public services, writes John Tizard

The correlation between the quality of public services and the quality of the leadership responsible for them has never been more vivid and tangible than today. Witness the dramatic shift away from both the historic ‘strong commander’ style and the unseen, closeted bureaucrat, sending memorandums or all “all staff e-mails’ and expecting to see results improve in proportion to her or his words of exultation. Yes – there will always be an important role for effective communication, encouragement and praise but I am talking about listening, modelling behaviours, living the values, being entrepreneurial, taking measured risks, being transparent, persuading, inspiring and partnering – rather than telling.

The labyrinth in which the modern public service leader operates has become most complex. You may be employed in the public sector or the voluntary and community sector, or by a business or a social enterprise. You may have responsibility for one or a combination of policy, commissioning, procurement, operational design, delivery or advocacy on behalf of service users, communities and staff.

Whatever the sector and whatever your principal role, successful leaders share common attributes, including:
• practicing a values-based, public service ethos
• a commitment to putting communities, society and service users first, and before personal/institutional ego, self-interest, or hierarchy
• outcomes and community and user-focused, rather than process driven
• excellent communication skills, especially re listening to communities, service users, colleagues, partners and staff (and trade unions)
• collaborative skills and an instinct to network and work alongside partners
• an ability to persuade and negotiate with people, institutions and agencies – to adopt alternative behaviours and contribute to the delivery of specified outcomes
• being entrepreneurial, innovative and solution-focused
• welcoming of new ideas, and internal/external challenge from any source or sector
• encouraging some creative ‘insurgency’ within and from outside their organisation
• a measured risk-taker; not overly risk averse or too reliant on the ‘rule book’ and ‘procedures’
• always being transparent and accountable to the public and key stakeholders
• ready and willing to challenge poor practice, barriers to progress and vested interests that block the achievement of desired outcomes

Significantly reducing budgets require leaders to be innovative and work with service users, staff, partners and suppliers to ensure to secure the best husbandry of scarce resources; be willing to share and pool; and continuously to focus on efficiency, effectiveness and social value. A simplistic accountancy mentality alone will not do – there has always to be an overriding regard for social value and social impact.

Contemporary public service challenges are greater than they have ever been. This requires leaders to be able to get the very best from colleagues and others – which requires a commitment to support and invest in talent and succession planning, and to be robust, fair and consistent in performance management.

Citizens rightly deserve no less than the best services – which requires the highest standards of leadership from those who determine policy, and design, commission and deliver those services. Above all it requires an unequivocal commitment to public service from those leaders.

John Tizard is an Independent Strategic Advisor and Commentator

We need far fewer leaders – thoughts on leadership from Mike Cooke, Chief Executive of LB Camden

Imagine that you’ve been a student/ practitioner of leadership for over 25 years. Now imagine that one day you realised that most of what you had learned and what others have been promulgating for decades is deeply flawed. When this happened to me three years ago, it was simultaneously shocking, scary and liberating.

Although the orthodoxy on leadership has not remained static, in the main, it is still characterised by the leader being the person who sets and communicates direction and strategies, manages resources, and measures/oversees performance. Successful leaders are often characterised as those who do all this in a supportive way and who “empower” their staff. But at its heart it remains an approach based on command and control.

A few years ago as Director of Housing I began to realise that we had a customer service problem with our housing repairs business unit – a £10m business which undertakes day to day repairs to 22000 council homes. The measures the business were using didn’t say there was a problem, but customers told me there was. On investigation, the business model was failing with too many appointments being missed, jobs not completed in a timely way and a lot of waste. A radically different approach was put in place that has increased customer satisfaction from 65% to around 90%, saved 10% off running costs and increased staff satisfaction.

So what’s this example got to do with leadership? Well that’s the point – not that much. The service problems were diagnosed by staff who do the work, including craftsmen and women; they designed  a new service and tested it out on a small scale. They focussed on what was important to customers, how we could join up our organisation to make residents’  lives as easy as possible and meet their needs quickly and in one go. It wasn’t about visions, strategies, leadership role modelling, symbolic actions, training courses, coaching or incentives. It was about getting the work and system design right and everything flowed from that.

After the re-design phase and before the testing of the new approach, colleagues involved in the re- thinking said to me:  “no-one’s ever asked us properly what  our views are before; we think we have come up with the right thing to do; we’re excited by this new approach; but we think it’s too radical for you to agree to”. That’ s the moment when I realised that these people had more wisdom about their customers and the work than I ever would. They knew what years of top down management had done to service delivery and they knew how to fix it: but they thought it would be ‘same old/ same old ask us what we think then ignore us’. It simply did not make sense for me to sit in judgement over their views and ideas – we had to implement them.

My role and the role of the departmental management team became transformed into one focussed on creating the conditions for the new approach to succeed and ensuring that the radically different approach was understood and supported across the whole organisation (something of a challenge given the increase in risk appetite required and the counter intuitive decentralisation of some of the work).

Three years on and having seen this approach transform other services in my council, we are now setting our sights on council wide and indeed wider public service reform. Yes, leaders will have an important role to play. But in an organisation where there’s now a relentless focus on the ‘outcomes’ of our endeavours and self direction within teams, we’ll need far fewer leaders and only those that can unlearn past approaches and adapt to our reimagined purpose of leadership.

Literature on leadership

When leadership is discussed in the media it is most frequently focused on particular individuals and much of the leadership literature more generally has focused on individual heroes (1). However, in recent years a literature has emerged that focuses more on distributed or dispersed leadership. This perspective suggests a need for a new kind of public sector leader to respond to the changing context, in which leadership beyond boundaries and beyond spans of authority will become more important (2). There is recognition that the most pressing issues for society are complex and span the remits of many different agencies – now universally referred to as ‘wicked’ issues. These wicked issues can’t be solved by one public sector agency alone and require collaboration between public sector organisations, the private sector, voluntary organisations, communities and individuals. This has raised the question for leadership theorists and practitioners about whether the traditional concept of a leader is still fit for purpose or whether there is a need for a new way to think about the role of a leader and the skills that will be needed.

There are several terms to describe this new type of leadership, including collaborative, collective, contested, distributed and dispersed leadership. Two frameworks in particular have found resonance with local government and helped to frame thinking about different leadership approaches. First, Heifitz’s adaptive leadership model, which he defines as ‘mobilising people to tackle tough problems’ (3, p.15) and, second, Mark Moore’s concept of public value (4), which enables a leader to look beyond immediate pressures to focus on what the public most value and what will add value to the public sphere. Both these approaches call for new sets of leadership skills.


More recently there has been a call for a new breed of leaders from Wilson’s ‘Anti hero project’ (5) which builds on Heifetz’s model (3) where effective leaders avoid being the hero who has to find a solution for every problem. The Anti hero report suggests that the workforce recognise the need for new leadership approaches. In response to a survey, respondents identified the top five leadership characteristics that are currently overvalued as control, charisma, power, financial skills and expertise – all very traditional concepts of leadership – whereas the five key undervalued skills were collaboration, humility, listening, empathy and integrity. It is clear that for leaders to be able to operate in a diverse, collaborative environment, these ‘undervalued’ skills will be the ones that will produce results. Similarly, recent work by the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), concludes that:

From our interviews [with chief executives and HR directors in a range of local service organisations] it is clear that there is widespread belief that public services can only be more responsive to the needs of service users if employees on the front line are trusted to innovate and empowered to act with more autonomy. This requires a fundamental culture change away from traditional command and control models of leadership to one in which leadership is distributed across organisations (6, p.4).

In order to achieve this, leaders clearly need to be confident (and humble) enough to ‘let go’ and enable this distribution of power to front line workers.

SOLACE, who represent local authority chief executives, have been developing a framework for the skills that future council chief executives will need. They have described these as ‘contextual’ skills:

  • Leading place and space: acting as the advocate, hub, facilitator and supporter of all aspects of the development of their community. This means more than just managing and contributing to partnership working – it requires creating local identity, community cohesion, balancing priorities and creating ‘whole system’ approaches.
  • Leading during complexity and ambiguity: working without a blueprint, going beyond the management of change and towards new levels of innovation.
  • Leading entrepreneurial organisations: entrepreneurial skills to invent new delivery methods, seek investment opportunities, create and operate organisations that empower staff and have a ‘can do’ culture.
  • Leading through trust: creating a motivational environment where others will have enough trust to follow them, even when the way ahead is not clear (7).

There is a clear picture emerging of the type of leader and the skills set that is needed now, and in future, to tackle society’s wicked issues. What is not yet clear is whether existing development and recruitment processes will enable these types of leaders to emerge.

  • Peck E, Dickinson H. Performing leadership. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2009 2009.
  • Peck E, Dickinson H. Managing and leading in inter-agency settings. Bristol: Policy Press; 2008 2008.
  • Heifetz R. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.1994.
  • Moore MH. Creating public value: strategic management in government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1995 1995.
  • Wilson R, Kalman Mezey M, Neilson N. Anti hero – the hidden revolution in leadership and change. OSCA Agency Ltd: 2013.
  • Heifetz R. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.1994.
  • PPMA and CIPD. Leading culture change: employee engagement and public service transformation London: CIPD: 2012.
  • SOLACE Skills for Local Government and Local Government Association. Asking the right questions. SOLACE: London: 2013.

Beyond the narrative of doom?

A short reflection on new figures revealed by LGC today which reinforce the prevailing narrative of doom for those working in local councils. The LGC survey reports that a fifth of senior managers believe their council’s workforce will shrink by more than 35% by 2020. To achieve savings, the research suggests that 51% of councils intend to outsource more of their services in future, and 58% are moving towards becoming a commissioning council.

The figures suggest that, as we found from our own research, perma-austerity is driving councils to work in different ways with 8 in 10 saying they would deliver services in future through closer partnerships with other authorities, and two thirds saying they would work more closely with NHS bodies.

While it is encouraging to learn that councils are planning to work in different ways; moving beyond the salami slicing approach of the early years of austerity, the biggest challenge will be how to help those working in the public sector to thrive and flourish in this environment. In the midst of so much change, (and loss), how can we best support the workforce to be resilient, and to develop the new skills and new roles that they will need to be effective in this environment?

Our research has identified some of the different skills and roles that might be needed, but those working in the public sector have told us that there needs to be a new narrative for the workforce – a new vision that moves beyond the narrative of doom and loss, with clarify around expectations, opportunities and support for development. Those tasked with commissioning or delivering public services in whatever form will need space and time for reflection, with peer to peer support and action learning to help them achieve better outcomes for residents in very different ways from the the past.

Free up staff to make ‘heart decisions’

Emma Browes

Emma Browes

The other day I woke up in a good mood. Eating my breakfast, my main concern was to try not to get jam on my ipad. Then the radio reported that Sir Bob Kerslake had given a speech and in this speech he said “Suffice it to say that under any Government, we face up to a further five years of austerity in public sector spending. The first five years have been challenging but the second five years are likely to prove even harder.” Not a surprise, but it took some of the sparkle out of the morning.

It is in this context that the 21st century public servant is being asked for more and more. We are asked not only to develop new skills, but also new mindsets and behaviours so that we can navigate new ways of working, increasingly reducing resources, changing consumer expectations and the implications and opportunities provided by social technology. All in the context of less and, often, with the burden that comes with the mechanics of a huge and bureaucratic organisation.   All the while headlines about redundancies and services closures are flying around.

So then, how do we help people to develop the skills and mindsets required of the 21st Century public servant in this context, foster innovation and challenge the prevailing culture?

The challenge is, I think, to reflect honestly on the trust within organisations.   One on one there will be thousands of examples of trusting relationships within organisations (ok and some not so much).

The key questions are – are these because of or in spite of the structures and processes that govern your world? Are they because of or in spite of the management culture that is prevalent in your organisation?

We have bureaucracy for a reason. If we takes risks and something goes wrong there are consequences – and there should be. We are public servants, we are spending the public’s money. People depend on our services for their care and wellbeing. However, we can no longer afford unnecessary bureaucracy – not just financially, but also in terms of providing easily accessible, transparent services that people are increasingly expecting and enabling staff to deliver these.

I heard an interesting story recently. A senior manager of a very large organisation was talking about how he had given permission for his team to make ‘heart decisions’. Processes were stripped right back and the only justification staff have to give for the decisions they make is that they think it is the right thing to do. These decisions were about money.

What happened? The money got to the people who needed it most at the right time. Why? Because the system assumed that staff would make the right decisions because they were in the best place to do so and understood clearly the values and behaviours that they are expected to work by.  In this case the risk of not spending the money outweighed the risk of unnecessary bureaucracy preventing help getting to people who really, really, need it.

The 21st century public servant needs to have the skills, capability and confidence to take risks to innovate and be creative so that they can deliver the best possible services.

To enable people to do this organisations need to be clear on the values and behaviours expected. This needs to run through all our management and communications processes – we value not just what you do, but how you do it.   Equally importantly, we need to hold people to account should they behave recklessly or not in line with our values and behaviors. But, we do increasingly need to take the plunge – let go and trust.

Emma Browes blogs as HR Em, writing about Social Media and HR.  She has over 15 years experience of working in large public sector organisations and writes about all of those too!  She currently works for Leeds City Council and will be forever grateful that she is not only permitted, but encouraged, to explore all things social to develop more collaborative ways of working –   discouraging email, encouraging use of the word awesome. www.emmabrowes.wordpress.com, @emmabrowes   

First Steps to Thinking Relationally

Kate Bagley

Kate Bagley

At Participle, we strongly believe that a 21st century welfare system must work relationally. (In fact we believe it so strongly, that’s what we’ve named our blog.) So what does that look like? We’ve got a vision of a future where our public services are dedicated to boosting citizen’s capabilities to lead thriving lives, every frontline worker has the time and ability to form relationships with the people they assist, and local networks of support are helping everyone find great jobs, stay healthy, and stay connected.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We know that it’s not easy to make these types of changes in a system that resists them. But we also know that the role of the public servant is rapidly changing. We’ve always been happy to admit that you don’t need every single public service to function relationally – you don’t need a meaningful relationship with the people emptying out your bins in order for the waste disposal system to work properly. But lately I’m beginning to wonder. In our current environment, even the fire service are expected to reach out and work with the communities around them to a surprising degree. It’s evident that those of us in public service need to understand the thinking behind working relationally, and it’s also evident that we aren’t going to be able to change our systems overnight. So where do we begin? If you’re a public servant, here are some easy places to start:

  •  Map out your day. When we spent time with social workers who assisted troubled families, we found that they spent 80% of their working time filling out paperwork and dealing with forms, and 20% of their working time interacting with the people they were meant to help. Of course, a good portion of that 20% was spent seeking data to input into the forms. Still, when we asked them beforehand how their day was spent, they reported that most of their time was spent with the families. You might not realise how much time you’re spending with people until you sit down and purposely map it out. Realising how much or how little you actually have to work with is the first step to thinking about what a different way might look like. If you’re in management, think about the structures and tools you’re giving to the people who do frontline work, and if those are helping or hindering them in forming relationships with service users.
  • Learn about active listening. This might seem a little unusual, but if you’re in a role where you need to understand people’s lives and what motivates them to change, a little bit of listening will go a long way. Most of us are not in the habit of truly listening to what people are saying, or helping others reflect on their thoughts. These are skills which are easily sharpened with a bit of practice, and will help you do your job much better. We’ve found that even just simply giving people the space to get things off their chest while you listen makes them much more receptive to what you’ll have to say in turn.
  • Stay in touch with how people are helping each other in the communities where you work. This is a dual-purpose suggestion. Understanding how people are connecting to support one another will make it easier for you to point your clients in the right direction. Go beyond what large charities are offering, and pay attention to what small community groups are up to and which local businesses are the informal gathering places where people go to chat. Getting plugged in to these networks will help you understand your clients better, and might even act as inspiration as to how your service could function more efficiently in that context.

In the face of diminishing resources and time, even the above can look easier said than done. But give it a try. It could help you see your work in a new light, and it’s quite likely to make your job easier in the long run.

Kate Bagley is Campaigns and Content Manager at Participle

Can we train people to be relational? Yes, but that’s not the point.

Miia Chambers

Every now and again, the debate of whether it’s possible to train frontline workers (most recently nurses) to act with more compassion in the line of duty pops up again. We understand that building relationships with the people they serve is an important part of their job, but we can’t understand why there seem to be such obvious and consistent failures to connect. Is the ability to work relationally something you either have or you don’t? Or is it something you can foster in people? It’s a big question.

From my experience, everyone who’s willing can be taught to build better connections with the people they serve. I know this because I do it every day. As a coach, I specialise in helping people communicate and connect with others. I’ve seen that when people learn how to be better listeners, empathy follows.

But we can’t expect the individuals to carry the whole burden. If we want our health services, or any other public service, to act with compassion, support is needed from all sides. Sometimes workers can lead the way. But if we want results beyond a few isolated incidents, the skill of building relationships has to be valued, rewarded and encouraged at every level, especially at the very top.

Training is important, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. To create a more compassionate service, you need:

-Messaging: It might sound silly, but management needs to be clear that people have “permission” to work relationally. This should be reflected in both words and actions. When a supervisor sees a nurse trying to work around rules and structures to fit a patient’s needs, is the supervisor’s first reaction to ask why they’ve done it, or to chastise?
-Process: Too much paperwork, huge caseloads and strict time limits mean that even if doctors and nurses wanted to take time to make human connection with a patient, they don’t realistically have that option. The #hellomynameis campaign is a step in the right direction, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
-Culture: Are people recognised and rewarded for working relationally? Is there an emphasis on risk prevention and professionalism to the detriment of getting people the help and support they need?

We’ve been speaking about doctors and nurses here, but the same goes for pretty much all of our public services that work intensively with people. Whether they are staff or service users, it’s about putting people first, valuing their contributions, and helping them build their skills and capabilities. If you want to build a community feeling, you can’t do it alone. To expect frontline staff to do so might hint at a failure of compassion and understanding on our part. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Miia Chambers has over two decades of coaching experience. She supports Backr, training volunteers to help others find their way in the world of work and ensuring the Backr service stays true to its relational mission. You can find her on Twitter at @miiachambers.

This blog originally appeard on the Relational Welfare blog hosted by Participle, who kindly allowed us to crosspost it.