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